[Review] The High Moors (5e); OSR Sleeper Cell

The High Moors (2020)

Stephen J. Jones (Unsound Methods)
Levels 1 – 9

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The OSR is dead, they say. In all the salons and gay bars of the world the cry of ‘The OSR is dead’ is taken up with unseemly, high-pitched cackling, and traffic is disrupted as a colonnade of poorly maintained hybrids trundle desultorily out of town, wreathed in an impenetrable fog of vanilla-tinged vape smoke, to set up shop in a far off starbucks and inflict some other hobby with torrents of pretentious tossfiddle. ‘The OSR really ended when pretentious hipsters were no longer able to decide who was allowed in it on Google+.’ Meanwhile in the Hinterlands, long-awaited OSRIC ‘Hoard of Delusion’ comes out, Lotfp rises like a phoenix from the ashes of its own financial implosion, OSE rakes in 100k in a stupendously successful kickstarter, Cha’alt II is doing alright albeit nowhere near its quixotic forebear (REVIEW IS COMING OKAY JESUS), and my own very humble Palace of Unquiet Repose is still on schedule to be the greatest adventure ever written in Christmas.

A fine year says I. And what better way to sound out the old year then to cover one of the most interesting donations I have received this year. The High Moors by interloper Stephen J. Jones is nominally for 5e, but in spirit it carries so much of the OSR with it that it really does fit right up my alley. And good on Jones for setting out and proving to the world that 5e doesn’t HAVE to be the Animu Avengers Destroy Mordor.

The High Moors is a semi-sandbox Hexcrawl campaign set in the post-cataclysmic region of the High Moors. Three hex maps with 60 locations make up the bulk of its material, though there are a variety of evocative house rules, new creatures, races, magic items and the odd spell to flesh it all out. It is WEIRD, without being bland or otherwise formulaic, and it manages to shift 5e’s focus from preening and flexing (not that there’s anything wrong with that etc. etc. etc.) straight back to E-X-P-L-O-R-A-T-I-O-N where God intended it to be. What a great way to get new people interested in the at times beginner-unfriendly world of oldschool gaming.

It immediately begins off on the right foot by introducing optional rules; It reduces the number of intelligent races to six, sets the technological level at about the Dark Ages, spells are restricted to 4th level, No RAISE DEAD and the coinage is paid in shillings. The rationale IMMEDIATELY tackles any entitled whining that would surely result from such a drastic FANTASTIC alteration by pointing out that limitations are essential to create mood, theme, atmosphere and focus and I heartily agree with every single word. Now there ARE ways in the game to A) Raise a Person From the Dead and B) gain access to higher level spells but these are carefully hidden AND MUST BE DISCOVERED THROUGH EXPLORATION.

Before I delve further into laudly singing its praises I think I must tackle the general look and feel of High Moors; It looks cheap. Besides the odd Dyson Logos map or hexmap made with mapping software, the product is pages of text with bare-bones formatting. For a product of this length and obvious craftsmanship, I think this is a missed opportunity. My meritocratic convictions to the contrary, great writing might get your product to the stars but it is presentation and appearance that will attract people in the first place.

The setting of the High Moors gets rid of EVERYTHING that is wrong with modern fantasy settings. The world of the High Moors is murky, history is dark and ends mere centuries past. A great cataclysm took place on the Plateau of the Shining Ones but beyond that little is known. Vaguely Hellenic Dwarves, fantasy mongols, fantasy Saxxons, commy celt-goblins, city-states and Halfling native americans inhabit the stark and untamed wilderness of the southern region. The old races get a whiff of foreign culture without being entirely removed from their essential nature. To the far west and east lie the ruins of defeated empires, none know how they fell. The plethora of elemental planes are reduced to one alien realm only, the Far Realm, a lovecraftian outer-darkness that can be used to travel faster then light 40k style.

Mystery. Size. Atmosphere. A lack of whitewashing. This is what you will find. I mean, you can play a fucking Scottish Bearfolk Barbarian but there is a gravitas to it all that makes it easier to absorb. The clutter has been reduced and something recognizable shines forth.

The second interesting decision is the Shining Ones themselves. The High Moors used to be the dwelling place of the Shining Ones a race of ‘fascist supremacist [1]’ elves that originally came from the stars [2], populated this world with their slave species, wiped out their rivals in the east and west and eventually all but destroyed themselves by trying to harness the power of the Far Realm energies that they once harnessed. Normally all this backstory would be window-dressing, useless to everyone, but the game hands out actual XP for learning knowledge about the world, further stimulating exploration.

These optional rules bring a warm and familiar feeling to my dead heart-cockles. Stephen J. Jones sneaks in the Reaction Roll table, before you know it he is openly discussing giving XP for gold spent. Not really knowing how well the game would handle this, and considering you might fuck yourself royally with the balancing, it is in fact my recommendation that you restrict XP to secrets and XP for cash ONLY.

Just about every type of background is given motivation to explore the High Moors, everything from clan elders ordering you to recover the long lost library of the Elves to more mundane drives like finding Elven Horses, the lust for treasure or a desire to destroy one of the factions that roams the High Moors.

Ah yes, the factions. Bands of adventurers, LARGE BANDS, often 20 men or more, roam the hex with objectives of their own. In an innovation that I have not actually seen before, Jones provides a timeline for each. That means that EACH WEEK, each faction DOES SOMETHING THAT HAS CONSEQUENCES, unless the party happens to be in that region, also interacting with objects. This really helps contribute to the feel of a lived-in world and is, quite frankly, an excellent innovation. Now if this information had all been included in the same location, in say, a table so I could easily peruse it while I kept track of time I WOULD USE THE FUCK OUT OF THIS.

There’s some flirting with a more cinematic playstyle here and there, with plotlines, a climax and encounters that feel more like scenes then tactical scenarios but this is not always a terrible thing. I appreciate greatly that it takes 30 DAYS to get from civilization to the settlement of Hob’s Lake with mostly flavor encounters underway for example. It sets the tone and establishes the pacing of the adventure, which will likely be slower and involve more investigation then your average dungeon romp.

Starting town is alright too. Hob’s lake. Huts, tents, trappers, woodsmen, miners, prostitutes. Real frontier sort of place. The description here is a bit excessive and everyone is given “secrets” to discover and there’s interesting details like the alcoholic laypriest running a “church of all gods” or a spy of distant Utnapitshim gives it some bite. It’s a bit long but thank the gods for being able to hire 0th level workers, something that would be useless in 99% of the content out there but that is actually very useful here, so again well done.

Meat and Potatoes time. The High Moors Proper. Divided in 3 Hex Maps with strangely-interwoven random encounter tables, the whole comes across as a crossbreed of Viriconium, Hiero‘s Journey and Roadside Picnic. The decaying technological settlements of a sadistic master race, twisted by the influence of lovecraftian horror. Calcified forests inhabited by beasts infested by memetic parasites. Ancient barracks littered with burnt out skeletons. A thousand slave collars. Buried Doomsday weapons. Gateways to distant worlds. A metallic tree fueled by souls and guarded by iron automatons. Talking primitive animal people. Its weird but less Gonzo weird and more Roadside Picnic Weird; Unsettling, strange, cryptic.

It’s also hard to use on the fly. Encounters are plain text and lead into one another and important information is not always presented in a logical order. Very often areas are just described as a series of encounters and it is made clear the placement doesn’t REALLY matter. I mean that’s more like the sort of rough n’ tumble home games I am used to but it helps if you have a sort of visual guideline that allows you to grasp the scale of a place.

Description is sometimes too long. Hex crawls rely on quick, punchy sentences so you can quickly assimilate what is happening and improvise on the fly. In the dungeons sometimes the writing approaches apocalyptically bloated proportions.

Guard Room: The door of this room is rotted away. The room beyond appears to have been a guard room. Bits of wood on the floor and walls look like the remains of tables, chairs and a weapon rack. An alcove in the north wall appears to be a latrine with a hole in the floor leading down. The room is damp and has weeds and lichen growing everywhere. Originally staffed by bearfolk warriors, the west wall still shows carvings of bearfolk armed with spears. The bearfolk appear to be the proud protectors of tall slim humanoids in robes or dresses.

Or this.

The cavern is occupied by the bones of a giant.
The bones appear coated with a mineral deposit
and look fossilised (although they just have a
mineral coating). The giant appears to have
been twenty feet tall, so would have had to have
crawled down the tunnel. Around its neck is a
huge ring of elven steel marked with runes
(weighs 25lbs). On one finger bone it has a
large tarnished silver ring set with a black
jewel with a swirling smoky interior (apparent
value 100 silver shillings; requires attunement.
One of a pair. Both wearers can sense the
health of the other wearer at any distance. Other
ring is currently attuned to a living giant). The
jewel is strangely warm to the touch. Lying close
to the giant is a huge mineral encrusted wooden

One thing that this thing really nails is the slow pacing and the sense of exploration. Very often areas have to be excavated or searched for hours. Not rounds. Hours. There are areas that have secret doors that are jammed, or already opened, adding to the idea of a lived in location. It can contribute to places feeling somewhat empty, but since what few dungeon areas the hexcrawl has are fairly small this is manageable.

A second very interesting part is its use of interconnection. Places or items require keys or solutions that can be found in other places. This gives a reason to explore, or negotiate, or interact with other creatures in a way that does not involve butchering them for XP. The best example is a “baroness” and her deathless protector in Red, who will ask all manner of favors (a character’s true name for example) in exchange for a variety of boons (she will reincarnate a fallen character for example). There is a weird puzzlebox that only opens for people that don’t have a name. See? The place is littered with these sorts of elements, encouraging backtracking, careful searching and a more systematic approach. I love it.

It has that WILD feel to it that I associate with hobby D&D and no longer with official D&D. There’s myriad ways to get physically mutated, there are zombie plagues to unleash in decrepit bio-weapons research facilities, armies of honest-to-god vat-grown Tarrasques kept in suspended animation by a faltering Dream-Web that you can graft yourself onto, a gigantic Sphere of Annihilation, brains to be found, this sort of out-of-the-box crazy shit is more in line with the sort of off-the-cuff DIY stuff I like to see, and is often provided with simple, rudimentary rules that make it feasible to actually run the damned things. Since most rival adventuring parties suffer calamitous mishap, the actual damage to the world is slim.

Monsters are pretty fantastic. Almost no reliance on the standard roster of monster, its all weird creatures, magi-tek robots, a Clockwork Dragon, the restless dead of the elves, mutants and other bizarre far realm horrors. It never feels lazy or formulaic.

The rewards are good too. Nonstandard treasure that must be carried off, the finding out the gods that you worship are actually based on Elven Overlords and discovering the True God (awesome) and thus gaining access to 5th level spells, a mechanical heart, destintegration wands that only work for elves, an adamantium spear that kills anything with one hit but will also kill the wielder…there’s some gems here and there are NO formulaic +1 swords anywhere to be found, besides the Elven-Steel weaponry that occurs here and there but is perfectly acceptable.

I love the idea that you give the PCs some sort of remote Particle Beam Cannon installation that they can use and just see what happens. The fact it can actually be used to stop some other sort of catastrophic outbreak or mishap is all the more cleverly done.

The Shining City is presumably the end-location and is cleverly designed because several other locations must be explored first before a final cataclysmic showdown with one of the architects of the misery plaguing the High Moors can be had and the Far Realms Rift may be closed off. My one GIANT GRIPE is that it doesn’t have a map. C’mon dude. Doodle a map, it doesn’t have to be long, but give people something to go by.

The mansion of the final boss elf is another off the cuff interesting idea. There are 30ish? rooms, and as soon as the PCs enter the wards of the mansion prevent them from leaving. A strange mechanical heart is the source of the enchantment. It requires 6 secrets of the owner to open. There are no monsters in any of the rooms but plenty of furnishings. An invisible Stalker spawns…and respawns every 5 minutes if slain…until the characters are dead. Can you figure out the secrets before you get ripped to shreds?

The final showdown proper has a real chance of absolutely curb stomping the players, but might also end up with them walking over Celebrand like it was nothing.

Verdict time: I like this. A lot. For a 5e hexcrawl its downright groundbreaking, it has a sort of wild creativity to it and is willing to go beyond the beaten path, and that’s exactly what is required in a Weird Hexcrawl setting. Its largest drawbacks are its presentation and its layout, which makes it very difficult at times to quickly make sense of a location. Sometimes it almost makes me wish for the Carcosa style paragraph encounter, with some elaboration beneath it in different typeset. Something that allows me to quickly scan what is happening so I know where to look. Some organization, cheat sheets for all the items that interact with other items and an overview of what happens each week would probably improve its useability.

I’m edging towards a **** but I think it might be a lot of work to run it in its current state. You really have to absorb a lot of these encounters very well and take diligent notes before you run them because you won’t be able to recover if your players stumble into a location and you have to figure it out on the fly. For now I am giving this one a very admiring *** with my fingers crossed that a high quality, properly edited and trimmed down version will come along to sweep me off my feet. If you are looking for a passion project and you recognized any of those references I gave above then this might be just what you need. Promising but needs polish. CAN EASILY BE USED FOR THE OSR.

Get it here.

[1] It seems a strange term. The Shining Ones are the progenitors of the intelligent races on the High Moors, creating them as servants and slaves, but within their own society they seem fairly egalitarian. Might I suggest the less anachronistic ‘evil’?
[2] My R.Scott Bakker senses are tingling.


15 thoughts on “[Review] The High Moors (5e); OSR Sleeper Cell

  1. Dont’t forget the release of dreaded Halls of Arden Vul with it’s 1100+ pages and Saint Crawford raising 220k for his Worlds Without Number. The end is nigh for OSR, nigh indeed!


    1. Remember remember the month of December. I hope you have already said tearful farewells to your fans. There is just no way they will not switch over to Age of Dusk after Palace ;P

      Miss you Hoss. I swear to god I’ll get Cha’alt Two out before the end of the year.


  2. Hmm, have you just offered your services as a consultant for a leaner, better formatted revised edition? The basic idea of letting the players discover “the big secrets” has worked well in many modules.
    Regarding “death of the OSR”, I think that depends on how you define the OSR. I think of it more as a mindset, discovering what made some of the earlier adventures great, and working out how to use that for your own creations. With that definition, it can never die, it just waits for the next group of talented authors and excited players to find it.
    And I would include those that would echo James Bond and say “I never left”.


    1. I have not, but given the lack of an art budget and the amount of work that goes into consulting, I haven’t quite figured out what my service is worth by the hour. I’m in the beer money tier right now but the biggest problem is time.

      Preach it brother. If the OSR did not exist, one would have to invent one. Peace!


    2. I couldn’t agree more. History never dies, so neither can the OSR. The concept is out there and there is enough published content for several lifetimes of gaming. The OSR’s ideas have already influenced–nay, infected–the wider tabletopverse. If no new OSR content ever comes out, its ideas would be no less powerful.

      As for this adventure, I’ve been slowly reading the text, and I really like it. Just the right amount of gonzo for me without going Full Venger. Just kidding Mr. Satanis–no flesh-eating curses, please.


  3. Hello there sir.

    Sorry to ask a question not relevant to this specific review, but is there any 2-3 session dungeon module you could recommend with demon-theme stuff? Characters are lvl 4/5 and I’m running White Box FMAG.


    1. Hi there. It is not often that my blog is graced by spellcasters of such supra-cosmic ability.

      4-5 lvl demon-themed is tricky, by the book AD&D generally has demons at greater power levels, but you could check out In The Vine’s Eye by Jeff Sparks if FMAG White Box is close to Basic D&D it should be easy to convert. Shadows of Evil for Role Aids has a very strong evil vibe to it and includes demons, and the 4-7 level range should JUST work, though you might have to keep em going to get them through the entire module in 2-3 sessions.

      Both are hard to get but you are a lvl 80 wizard so I am fully confident in your abilities.


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