28 March 2021

First Impressions - The Vast in the Dark (ZineQuest 3)


The Vast in the Dark - procedurally generated Alien Megastructures for D&D

The Vast in the Dark is another zine that was released as part of the ZineQuest 3 campaign on Kickstarter in February 2021. It caught my eye, as the idea of exploring a vast unknown ruin presses a lot of my SF buttons. However, 'alien' is used in the context of strange and different here. It's not an SF setting, but a setting for D&D and various retro-clones. The author, Charlie Ferguson-Avery, recommends a few systems to play this with (with the notable inclusion of Pathfinder but the omission of D&D 5e), in the main OSR related games. The reality is that this can be plugged into any pretty much any system, provided you're will to convert the encounters from D&D to another language.

The sky is black as night, a tectonic rumbling can be heard overhead; the ruins sprawl out with a fractal madness, and a vast sea of colorless sand stretches out into the darkness, 

This is The Vast, a liminal realm hidden far away from our own. Always waning and on the verge of collapse, it is host to countless lost souls and alien treasures hidden within its crumbling ruins.

I'm writing this based on the PDF release, which is not (at the time of writing) available on DriveThruRPG or Itch.io. However, if this floats your boat, their Itch page is https://feral-indie-studios.itch.io/ if you want to bookmark it. 

The PDF comes in at 28 pages, and is evocatively illustrated and definitely catches the mood of a vast unknown space. The zine opens with a quick overview of the key points of the setting, then follows up with a table of quirks that travellers in the Vast can develop. They're all features that will help in the dark spaces, but they change you. For example, you may become subconsciously paranoid and realise when you are being followed. Another page covers a simple but effective encumbrance system, before the game plunges into exploring the Vast.

There are basic rules for how far you can travel in the cyclopean spaces without becoming tired, how many rations are needed, and the changes for weather and encounters being tied to the terrain. Interestingly, compasses/lodestones will point to the nearest large pillar that supports the roof that is lost in the darkness above. Exhaustion effects are covered, also how to reduce the chance of becoming lost and the impact of becoming lost. This is handled by a very traditional OSR style roll of a D6.

The zine then moves into the procedural generation of the Vast. This starts by using a hex map, at a scale of 6-miles per hex, and dropping a handful of D6s on it and referencing their results against a table. The terrain is either Wastes, Ruins or Pillars. Wastes are barren areas of dust and sand; Ruins are cyclopean city structures that can rise up and down into the land; Pillars are huge structures that support the ceiling, but they can be populated, just like ruins.

Once you have done the larger scale hexes generated, you can focus on the one that the adventurers are about to investigate. This is further subdivided into more hexes, and wastes and ruins are populated by dropping more dice (guidance is given on how many to use) which will result in a more detailed map that shows where ruined city sections are and which hexes are occupied. 

Wastes are expanded with a weather table to use when travelling through them. As well and dust storms, there's also a risk of the floor collapsing or mile-long sections of the roof falling down. Once a day you roll for weather and for an encounter.

Pillars give the opportunity to gather lodestone, which is a valuable resource that can be traded or used to guide people when travelling. However, each hour spent gathering or mining will risk an encounter.

Occupied Ruins are defined by rolling on a random table that provides the mood of the settlement, who they are, what they have, prominent locals and a problem that they have that the characters could potentially solve. These settlements provide an opportunity to rest, gain food and water, recover and resupply, and potentially gain allies or make enemies.

Unoccupied Ruins move into a further level of procedural generation. The ruin layout is created using 4D6 and a 6x6 grid. One dice goes on each side and generates hallways; the remaining spaces are rooms to explore. Timescales are given for travel and searching rooms. Some rooms will go deeper into the structures.

When you enter the room, you roll a D20 for the type of room (which then may trigger some choices or further rolls for the GM). For example, I roll a 4, which means that I'm in an Archive full of towering structures which has seen better days. This may have interesting carvings or be at risk of collapse.

You then roll 1D10 plus the depth for a feature. This could range from a collapsed or damaged space that's hard to cross, to a bug nest, to a way to access deeper into the ruins or some form of treasure.

Treasure has its own table; you roll a D20 plus the current depth and discover something useful, something special, or something great and terrible.

Finally, you roll 1D10 plus depth for encounters each time you enter a room. The higher you roll, the more dangerous the encounter. You may meet someone you can trade with or talk to, or bandits who want to steal your resources, especially your food and water which are scarce in the ruins. More rarely, you may encounter the creatures of the Crawl, including hungry Cyclops and hunting Medusae. If you are truly unlucky, you may encounter the fabled Wyrm. Few have lived to tell the tale.

Three factions are outlined for you to encounter; potential allies or enemies. The Lodestone Brokers are pretty straightforward merchants; the warrior-poets of The Candlekeepers will share your burdens if you ally with them, lighting the way with flickering light cast from the candles on their helms. The Devotees of the Waning Lodge embrace the darkness and decay of the Vast; if you embrace their ways you too could be lost.

There are optional rules for 'The Harrowing', the loss of self whilst exploring the alien Vast. Each character has five key memories that define them and their drives. If you suffer a terrible hardship, you can lose one of these; when they all go, your sense of self is last to Vast empty silent darkness. You become an NPC and wander off towards the caverns in the pillars, your humanity wasted away by the cyclopean ruins.

Overall, I like what this zine is trying to do. It looks great and hangs together well. I do think that it would be hard to run using the setting; the mechanics are fine, but I'd want to overlay some reason for the characters to be there; otherwise, you're just in these ruins until you fade away. But maybe that's the point of the setting, exploring the insignificance of humanity against the alien megastructure. The Vast is there, dark, desolate, unknowable and all-consuming.

28 March 2020


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