Monday, 6 February 2023

A Review of 'Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier' by Gus L


Writing AND Art! A twofer! 


Has a pleasingly integrated aesthetic and informational design, everything is in shards of pink and purple.

But who did layout, was that Gus?

A pleasing unity of form.

Guss' art is not always perfect but it is always correct.


Gus is an old old OSR (though he is just as likely to have renounced that group identity a few times since I last read his stuff.

He ran a blog called Dungeon of Signs [] which was pretty good, had a huge megadungeon called HMS Apollyon, and all of his stuff was free and slightly complicated, and because it was free it never really developed a 'cult following', though he had more than enough expertise and artistic and creative power to be considered very notable.

He was and likely is also a very very left wing and very bitter man.

Now he blogs at All Dead Generations [] and has come to whatever self-negotiation with the spirit of capital he needed to and produced something you can pay money for, so now people will like it more.

And well worth the money it is!

Because he is writer, and artist, AND map-maker (the most important) AND (maybe?) layout person - Gus could probably make an INSANE amount of money - however since he is a Commie also he probably wont.

No judgement here - I have written about the inescapable polarity between D&D's twin roots of capitalistic systemisation and ground-up folk art, to which we can add the parasocial personality economy of Kickstarter and the friend/contact economy.

Its all a little ugly and impure but so is everything that works, the best anyone can do is decide which compromises they are willing to make and try to stick by that honourably.


So while the not-right-wing-actually wing of the OSR seems to have recombined around Prince of Nothings blog it seems the not-communist-actually-you-CHUD wing (and this being the OSR, the actual political spread of creatives goes all the way from centre left, to very fucking left, with a few dots in the centre right, and then a little reactionary splurge a bit further right) has recombined (if they even needed to) around Bones of Contention and whatever purple grouping this is.

This is actually working better than it was back in the day, when all these goons had to share a forum or a G+ string or a comments thread life was 80% drama, 15% autism and 5% REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE, now they have all effectively purged each other from one another’s spaces and, looking around in their MIND PALACES, presumably have been left with little option but to actually produce dungeons, so now we have Prince of Nothings anti-artpunk thing and this.

10 out of 10, would partition again.


Like many D&D settings this exists on the borders of political power to allow the negotiation between law and lawlessness that makes up what we typically consider 'adventure', in that there is somewhere to go from (civilisation) and go to (the 'wild'), where you can do things that are usually or often disruptive to civilisation, and then return from back to, hopefully with all the money you made.

(Other versions would be just staying in the 'to' - which is maybe survival meets empire building - you don't get to trade the 'treasure' away to somewhere else for money which is mainly useful somewhere else, instead what you have that is useful is what you have, so gold less important than dry wood, and staying in the 'from' where you are still in civilisation and may to extra-legal things but have ot keep it on the down-low, in which case, we might call that 'intrigue' or a 'crime' game.)

The game where you go from the wilds into civilisation and then go back to the wilds, I haven't seen that very much - we could maybe call that the Tarzan game, or a Conan game. Some unexplored possibilities there perhaps.)

Different to some points of crap settings, this borderland exists between two or I think three empires, one of which is gaining in strength - so it looks like there is no 'infinite frontier' but instead distant, but growing, and probably inevitable, conflicts between major powers.

This plays into the faction play of the main settlement in which the main players are represented by low level goons and the unstable power balance of the town means the PCs will probably end up getting involved in this somehow, pissing off and or pleasing one or more of the factions and, if they are successful tomb robbers, disrupting the tenuous balance of power.

There is also a nascent fourth faction mad up of revenants and fallen star people which can pop up and start blooming in various forms depending on what you do in the crystal tombs.


An elegant conceit where a bunch of crystal meteors or stellar objects created or made into tombs by a race of elfish types who live up above the atmosphere, are plummeting through the atmosphere and landing across the 'crystal frontier'.

This answers the question of why it is a stateless borderland - giant crystal things keep plummeting out of the sky and when they land they poison the place, and why tomb robbers come there (no need for 'deep time' past empires integrated into the history of the game world)

[Interesting conflict or polarity there between OSR-adjacent creators tending to like both modularity in dungeon concepts but also loving 'deep time' and 'readable strata of empire' in their dungeons].


I am on record as being against crystals both in principal and actuality. Mere ageless boxes of refracted light, they carry no stain, mark no culture and drift through rich history like raindrops across a windowpane, yet for all that it is based largely in and around crystals I cannot deny that this book makes as good a use of them as likely can be made;

Professional crystal cutters gaining access to fallen tombs (possibility of tomb manipulation as one grows in this skill).

Ballardian crystal transformation disease.

(the opportunity for Stugatsky/Cronenberg crystal doppelgangers who walk prismatic through the wastes and think they are, and may be, the originals, is missed, but can be easily added)

Crystal swords, chests, zombies etc.

The refractive capacities of light in a crystal tomb are I think not fully developed.

Actually was I wrong originally? I think I would have preferred a somewhat more dreamlike and Ballardian tinge to the setting - shimmering plains and Faberge hogs, shining prismatic ghosts watching from obsidian crags, well you can't have everything.


There is something of a limitation in the concept of Tombs, in which nearly everything you meet inside has to be a revenant, construct, ghost, immortal or trap of some kind.

This is evaded somewhat by having the main tomb be crashed for a while and penetrated already so now an animal is nesting inside, in a secondary dungeon rival groups of prospectors are already humming about outside 

and there is nothing saying further drops must be limited to tombs, there could be crystal mazes, laboratories, churches, space-forts etc etc - 

yet still they must be crystal...


I have *tried* to produce here a very simplified flow chart of the dungeon layout which hopefully will not ruin it for anyone or tread on copyright or design

The lower red arrow is the main entry and the upper arrow a potential secondary entry and exit

Looks like basically a two-loop system, one loop obvious and the other hidden by a secret door.

If you look at the upper right branch of the leftmost vertical, irl that actually crosses *under* that point of the right vertical, if I were doing this I would have found it hard to avoid jamming in some kind of secret passing or crack there to create a third loop.

Should a dungeon be looped-to-fuckery?

Should it (like this one) have maybe one or two main loops and *possibly* more but those found only by exploration investigation or cunning?

Is there some kind of neat proportion or value between a dungeon having a certain proportion of 'open loops' and 'hidden loops'?

There is some kind of balance or at least, relationship here between the virtues of 'Flow Control' making a more Zelda-ish puzzle dungeon - like Arnold tries to do much of the time, and between ruincore or crumblecore design where there is just a hive of sneaky and chaotic ways to worm through a place as if it were rotten wood, producing a chaotic and unpredictable state of play, like I tried to do with Demon-Bone Sarcophagus.


There is a lot of excellent stuff in here; the main dungeon, a local town with factions etc, isometric AND flat maps, all done by Gus, plus a nice isometric area map, ANOTHER smaller dungeon with some battling prospectors.. 

(it’s a spiral which means it’s essentially a single line. I once made a spiral dungeon thinking it would be mysterious and cool but actually it turned out to just be a line and the players were tired and frustrated, not saying that is the case here but something to bear in mind)

Anyway, do you put the world stuff at the front, like an establishing tone thing, put it in the back like an appendix? Which maps do you put where? (this has literally every kind and format of map you might need, top down, isometric, for players for DM, etc,) do you arrange it to be read more like a story? to be referenced? for usage? (what kind of usage and by whom).

Anyway there is literally no good or correct way to lay out a book of this kind so...


The Crystal Tomb has the dungeoneering process integrated into world arrangement, with an on-call group of seconds to take the place of dead party members, rewards for both deceit and honesty with bosses, probably enough XP to get players out of the one-hit-to-kill zone.

It is not as carefully engineered or toyboxy as Serpent King, and not as deranged and chaotic as DCO.

It is a *hard* dungeon I think, and especially hard for new players. The crystal wasting sickness that seems to come in at every possible exposure to nearly anything, is pretty hardcore, especially over the long term and especially for low CON players.

I think my only complaint about this *might* be that it kills too slowly for something so terminal in what might be an opener dungeon - it seems highly likely that a new players golden winner PC could make it out with enough XP to hit level 2, a bunch of interesting things to make them care about the character and some spicy in-world political takes but still essentially have crystal-cancer which is going to kill them, slowly.

This could be a good hook for adventure and role-playing and there is a rumoured witch who might be able to cure you *somewhere* in the setting but at least the way I read it - pretty much everyone is going to get the crystal sickness thing and so 'hunt for the witch' is going to be adventure 2 in almost everyone’s campaign.

I might throw in an insanely expensive elixir or drink imported from some empire, available in the main town, which you can buy for an extortionate amount - that's less interesting than going to search for a witch, for one session, but more manageable long-term than 'ok boys we need to go to the witch again' over multiple sessions

Maybe it’s a slightly boring option? depends how you cost it perhaps.


In terms of its 'engineering' this is a pleasingly good and solid book. 

A possible Enny winner? Maybe 5 years ago when the 'OSR' was still a thing, but probably Gus is happier that way.

Deserves a hardback release and a print run imho!

(though knowing this audience you probably all already know about it)


  1. Thanks for the review!

    A couple of thoughts in response:

    Yes! I did the layout, I do all of my work (writing, art, lack of marketing, except editing and playtesting. It keeps my costs down so I can pass the savings on to YOU! Plus, I am of course not really in this to make money, RPG work doesn't pay that well even at the best of times and money just makes things stressful. The price of course is that I work very slowly.

    As you note crystals are fixed parts of the mineral world. I find that interesting, like the space of crystals in fantasy. Plus real crystals are amusing and uncanny -- have you ever been into a crystal shop? Pretty weird places.

    As you note, the reflective, refractive and other light warping aspects of crystals are right there to pick up. The "Place of Reflections", home to space elf sorcery, is mentioned a few times and so this sort of thing (including using reflections to make doppelgangers - though I have never figured out how to run doppelgangers well...) is certainly part of the setting's potential "lore" -- but oh how I hate lore...

    Which... gets to one of the key goals of Tomb Robbers, that is to offer a setting that's coherent, but with enough holes to fill them in how you like. Amidst Gygaxian orc holes and the vernacular fantasy ruins of elf cities or in the depths of the G+ era weird. Nice that it appears at least partially successful.

    The questions of dungeon design are well taken, I am not as pro-loop as some. I don't think super interconnected dungeons are ideal as they remove some potential for exploration/navigation to itself be rewarding. In Tomb Robbers the goal is to use the map to break the adventure into two sections, outer and inner tomb. They inner is smaller and more challenging. Jaquaysing is great, but Jennell's level design is more then just loops.

    The second spiral adventure is largely designed to encourage an appreciation for timekeeping and random encounters. I don't know how well it works, but tossing open coffins at 1 per turn should produce a large number of dangerous foes and deplete light fairly quickly. The simple question for the players is when to stop dilly dallying. How quickly will they note that maybe they don't need to loot everything, to "clear" the dungeon, for the best result and instead proceed to the end of the spiral where the best goodies are.

    Finally there's the question of how to design dungeons for playing in 3 hour online chunks. Still working on that one. Let me know if you run Tomb Robbers or want to play test the next one (a deep time barrow thing - crystal free - full of bronze and magic swords).

  2. I was never anti-crystal in the first place necessarily although I can respect your criticisms, but the comic book Cave Carson has a Cybernetic Eye along with the research by geologist Michael Russell, your own work in Veins, and a handful of other sources, has definitely made me more so appreciate the science fantasy or speculative fiction possibilities of minerals and metals. I wish I knew more about chemistry, physics, geoscience, etc., to fully explore the idea, but I've carved out a few of these ideas (pun intended) on my blog within the last few months or so.

  3. I too enjoy the partition of the new orthodoxy and the diaspora based on game-design preferences and not ideology (lol, at least from this side) and sincerely hope both sides will produce material that is to their interest and delight. Products of interest to the other side will slowly trickle over after approval from the relevant cultural censors and innovations can be introduced gradually without disrupting cultural coherence. I am afraid your obsession with warhammer 40k and old obscure books will get you stuck solidly in the middle with Noisms (here's hoping you will throw us a few game-design bones with your next outing old bean).

    I don't know about BoC being the new focal point as its activity and engagement seems to be somewhat sedate, despite its list of notables. Skerples's project seems to be doing very good, Yochai Gal's Cairn (I will be polite and refrain from commenting about its merits or the merits of its author) is gaining traction and the old favorites like Ben L. and Arnold K. are still trudging along. OSE seems to be somewhere in the middle with its cutesy presentation but traditional ruleset as B/X is B/X at the end of the day. Everyone hates Mork Borg.

    Gus (I will refrain etc. etc.) is an interesting case because
    he, unlike most of his compatriots, is reasonably knowledgeable, has a genuine interest in old DnD (as far as his ideology allows), and this is reflected in his work. His exile is in a way voluntary, even if it is now utterly irrevocable.

    It remains to be seen whose predictions are true and whose model is the stronger, but I am optimistic. I look at the people writing and am excited for the future. May this be an age of chivalric trial by module.

    Crystal World was a fine book.