By James Hanna Fey Light Studio B/X Levels 3-4
Blackstone Tower was supposed to be the perfect home for Virvul and Gosian, two of the greatest wizards in the world. Instead, it was abandoned, their monument to magic. This is the story of that place, and the many loves who came here, and some of those who never left.
This sixteen page adventure uses nine pages to describe a tower with about five levels. It has a gorgeous map/illustrations and is an utter shit show of an adventure. It obfuscates usage … ON PURPOSE. This means it’s not actually an adventure but rather some masturabatory art project. Joy.
I had high hopes for this. I can dig a tragic story. Melancholy is my friend. It’s got some pretty good art in it as inspiration. And that fucking map! Oh, so, I like the color blue. And this map manages to evoke the kind of airy dream-like quality that a good wizards tower should. Alien and recognizable, airy and organic. Seriously, this fucking map looks like it was custom designed to appeal to me, as an art or inspiration object.
There are inspired moments in this. There’s a waterfall flowing from an upper level of the tower and to get in to the tower you need to walk through it. That’s both magical and sure to be a source of terror for experienced OSR players. “Uh, fuck no. I’m not walking through that thing …” Inside we can see a tower fountain, shooting up in the air, forty, or fifty feet high, in middle of a large open room. Turns out it’s the guardian water elemental. Didn’t see that coming, did you? Or the origin of the entrance waterfall, coming from a living quarters on an upper level, with a veranda to look out over the land. That is, I think the last of grooooovy elements in this.
Because this thing is an utter shit show. I mean absolutely the worst dreck possible. Because, you see, it’s not an actual adventure. It’s actually some art project that is taking the form of an adventure. If an adventure is a piece of technical writing, meant to be used to facilitate a game at the table, then what do you call something that purposefully obfuscates the DMs ability to run it at the table? And I don’t mean the usual shit. I don’t mean someone who doesn’t know any better or just is simply bad as making something useful to the DM. I mean, what if you made decisions to make it harder to run the adventure? Like, I know know, you write it in Basque in limerick form and all of the phrasing was metaphorical. Can you call that an adventure? Well, I guess, as the designer, you can call it whatever you want. As the arbiter of my own tastes, though, I dub thee “Shit show art project that makes me feel like I’ve been manipulated and deceived.” And as a good little midwesterner, well, we don’t like to feel like we’ve been deceived. Hardworking people, we like our snakeoil to contain both snake AND oil.
The origin for my extreme disgust is the writing style. The adventure is written in voice from two different perspectives. EVERYTHING is in voice. Everything. FIrst, you get the voice of one of the wizards, giving interior design and architecture notes to an architect. Second, you have the architects comments between themself and their parter as a kind of “handwritten” addendum to the wizards instructions. It’s like the wizard was writing a letter to the architect and then the architect added some notes to it in the margins.
An example? Allow me …
“Sadly, rugged black basalt composes the vast majority of our beach front property
wish for you to clear out three areas and dredge some proper sand up to make sheltered beaches where Z and I can lounge in the sun.”
How about the description of a trap in one of the rooms? “A few oozes ought to do it. Hide them in chambers around the pool, and then flood the room, allowing the oozes, practically invisible in the water, to dissolve the hapless intruders. Once the room fills, have a tube dump the gelatinous contents into the sea.”
Or, perhaps, the description of the main bedchamber room that contains this little gem: “It is done. She is no more. She has taken herself from me. But I will always have her body to gaze upon when I wish it, for her body shall lie preserved forever in the waters of her home, in the bed which we made together.”
Like, what the fuck man?! The ENTIRE adventure is written like this. Not just in voice, but with the details obfuscated. From that last section you’re supposed to get that the chicks body is in the pool of water in the room.
The designer wanted some kind of forlorn tragic love story thing. I’m not even sure that’s in this. It’s written in such an obtuse way that I can’t even tell if the two wizards are actually IN the tower. How’s that for fucked up?
Look, I got no problem with your art project. I’ve got no problem with experimentation. But I suggest that you didn’t actually write an adventure. You wrote some kind of piece of literature or performance art that mimics the form of an adventure. Because to be an adventure you have to be able to use it at the table and you can’t use this at the table. And the choices made in the design were explicitly to LIMIT its usage at the table. That may be too strong a statement. It may be that the designer wanted to play with voice and style. But the direct impact was that it limits its usage. In exactly the same way as if you sold a book of Basque limericks to English speakers as an adventure. It’s not.
And put the fucking level range on the cover or in the product description. Jesus H Fucking Christ how many fuckimg times do I have to fucking say that?
I leave you with this, the design notes from a wizard, describing how to get from one place to another, buried in the text of a larger room description and not shown on the map: “The only way into the grotto is via the staircase that winds along its perimeter and emerges in the center of the foyer beneath the hidden door.”
This is $6 at DriveThru. If you buy at DriveThru you will get an InDesign file. If you mail the designer to get a PDF you will get no response. You can then go to itch and claim one of the free community copies. Also, not preview, although there are page scans on the product page. You see that little “agreement” section on the last page? You have no idea how important that is from the preview. It should have shown a full level/encounter/room if it was going to go down the experimental path.
Art. Punk. Crusade.
Ok ok, so you’re maybe on to something with your critique of some of the writings of that ‘movement’ or ‘style’ … but you’re beginning to sound a bit like a broken record. Don’t take this the wrong way: you made it clear you don’t like the style. And why that is. And I happen to agree for a good part. But maybe everyone and their uncle now knowing your position, it might be time to raise a new question?
“Is all so-called art-punk bad? Is it an inevitable consequence of a stylistic form (for the most part externally defined as such by you, and not by the author) or is it merely a tendency? And does everything have to look like 1981 to be acceptable, or might that also be construed as a slightly conservative and silly yardstick? Are developments in style (and not merely writing) totally unacceptable or at there other reasons?”
I for one think that Deep Carbon Observatory works really well in reading, prep, and play. I would be interested to read one of your detailed reviews on it. But remember – as with any a academic peer-review, you are asked to kindly review the work “as written” and not “as you think you might have written it”.
Use the search function or check out “the best” section.
Bryce describes DCO as a “master-class example of a good OSR adventure.”
So it’s not artpunk he hates/can’t get past. It’s shitty adventures.
It’s not Bryce that’s the problem … it’s the rest of you screeching bitter old men, wanking endlessly to your Gary Guglax pron. “OHHHH ohhh, it’s the evil artpunk, ruining my perfect AD&D, oh oh Morgan Ironwolf, only you and bigtory still give me joy!”
Go Fisticus yourself.
Old men… are the future!
Yet people will be playing Keep on the Borderlands forty years from now, whereas The Many Lost Loaves of Blackstone will be forgotten in a few months.
So maybe Old Man Gygax was onto something? Like, usability? Protest all you want, but that’s a legitimate possibility.
I understand that “research” is a bad word amongst the Art people…
He actually liked it, what do you know!
The question ‘is all Artpunk bad’ is very easily answered: No. I have reviewed plenty of Artpunk or Proto-Artpunk things that I liked, or was critical of but admitted had good elements. DCO I have reviewed twice and I came THIS close to giving it 5 stars the second time around.
My thesis is more that over time it produces a disproportional amount of junk and that noise ratio will only increase because of a disconnection with some of the core pillars that make up DnD, and this attracts people that have no interest in DnD. I’ll throw up an On Artpunk essay sometime.
Reviews are not academic papers written via a scientific method. There is no universal method or set of standards or goal agreed upon by all. If my criticism consists of a well-founded argument that something should have tackled a certain topic whose inclusion I suspect was vital to the area it was covering I can make that argument.
When you engage a discussion with the statement “Art. Punk. Crusade” then surely you see a potential of hyperbole?
Ok, so not all Artpunk is bad. Does the style have problems? Yes. Having those problems identified is key. You have obviously taken large part in doing just that. And as you repeatedly point out, when form takes precedence over function, things begin to slide. I have learned a lot from reading your work and it resonates with my own opinions.
As for “Reviews are not academic papers written via a scientific method” then that is evidently true. I might add “scholarly” to “scientific”, since the two are not the same.
But the process seemingly does share elements:
— one is the ideal to remain consistent and faithful to the piece under review (in my experience this ideal is rarely upheld in either world, but that’s a different matter). Scientific method does not often apply to studies of Literature, Art, Philosophy, Religion, Language, etc. And what you do arguably comes close to what such studies attempt: to engage with necessarily subjective issues of content, style, quality, etc. Like a student of Impressionist Art you apply terms and define parameters for discussing creations that were produced by people who did not necessarily identify as part of or subject to “Impressionism” and who may or may not have identified as “works of art” – did Van Gogh think of his lacquer boxes as “Art” or as utilitarian objects or both?
— another one is that one defines terms carefully before engaging: in the present context, I call for an awareness that “Artpunk” is mostly an “etic” label (as opposed to “emic”) and thus applied by outsiders (the reviewer) as opposed to creators (the author); To my knowledge, the latter rarely self-identify as being part of an “artpunk” style or movement or whatever.
So the issue is how to avoid tautology: “I don’t like artpunk. I don’t like this thing. This thing must be artpunk”.
I know things aren’t straightforward. I appreciate the care you take to avoid pitfalls and take other people’s creativity into consideration. I am not trying to be facetious. I do try to nudge the conversation forward based on a genuine interest in the topic. I was under the impression that I read all your work, yet I missed your two (!) DCO reviews. Oh boy.
I will await your Artpunk essay with interest. And hopefully not miss it.
@Reason: I was responding to PrinceOfNothing, not Bryce. I know he liked Medusa, DCO and other works that some label as “artpunk”.
I state my initial position in the clearest, most unequivocal terms possible, and only then add nuance, context, ass-covering etc. etc. if a discerning reader asks for clarification, or poses a question. I find it helps get to the bottom of the issue. Curious, I have heard this particular argument before.
The problem with defining anything as Artpunk is that the only attempt to define its parameters is an incoherent jumble by Patrick Stuart that incorporates anything from elements that would apply to any OSR game to political orientation to a high percentage of transpeople that does not neccessarily have anything to do with what your typical Artpunk product is like or about.
Nevertheless, the existence of the nebulous spectre that plagues the OSR is very real, has salient examples and is self-applied in many relevant cases (Stuart & Mork Borg etc. etc.). These issues on where exactly the boundary is to be drawn might be relevant in certain rare exceptions (such as proto Artpunk, Gardens of Ynn, say) but they do not yet present a pressing concern.
Look for the essay around newyears, I have taken a week off and we are in full lockdown.
Oof, my pattern recognition is playing tricks on me. You wouldn’t happen to be from the LA area would you?
I actually prefer the term “Impressionistic” lifted from Grognardia (or perhaps Pointilism). It’s artsy, it looks like D&D material from a distance and when one gets a closer look, all the holes between the dots are apparent. In some cases, they’re easily filled and the item can be run at the table. In others, the DM has to essentially write a module that fits into the setting presented by the module s/he bought.
Which, naturally, defeats the purpose of buying the module.
Looking forward! (To the essay, that is. Not the lockdown). I will be particularly interested to see whether your position reflects that you think AP is growing or whether they remain mostly fringe.
For all practical purposes, Artpunk is the most prominent strain of OSR.
But it comes with a Spotify link!
I’m a firm believer in adventures as technical writing. Sure, a little flavor helps; but the true value of a scenario is information. No one runs D&D who doesn’t enjoy fantasy or have some emotional connection to the subject matter enough to communicate that in their own voice. Tell me it’s an old cellar, and I’ll channel the terror I felt when my brother locked me in the basement for a more organic (and convincing) narration than any flavor text could ever provide. That said, people have creative urges and think gaming might be a suitable medium. Maybe. Or perhaps they could write fiction instead. Or produce visual art. What doesn’t work in a module might succeed elsewhere and be immensely more satisfying. Anyway, here’s wishing everyone a safe and happy holiday…