Scaling The Walls of The Gathox Vertical Slum
  • Scaling The Walls of The Gathox Vertical Slum


    Gathox Vertical Slum is a rules supplement and setting book for old school fantasy role-playing games (in the mode of Dungeons & Dragons) that combines a European weird fantasy sensibility with the claustrophobic oppressiveness of Judge Dredd's Mega City One setting. Fans of the French artist Moebius or the psychedelic sensibilities of Alejandro Jodorowsky will find plenty to spice up their campaigns with this game book. Gathox is the singular vision of writer and artist D.L. Johnson.


    Brought to print by DIY RPG Productions, also responsible for the ENnies award winning Dungeon Crawl Classics setting Hubris and the Black Hack powered Death Is The New Pink, Gathox Vertical Slum continues the publisher's push for setting and games that are driven by the personal vision of the creator(s) involved.

    The interior art of the book is raw and quirky, but with a professional polish to it. That might seem contradictory, but the art has an energy to it that brings across the personal vision that Johnson has for the world of the game. One of the things that I like about smaller press game books is that the artist's vision for the game's world isn't sterilized by the often bland art direction of larger presses with bigger budgets. The layout of the book is straight forward and unassuming.

    Rules-wise, there a number of new tidbits to help enforce the flavor of the game's world. A standard house rule in old school games is introduce skills or ability checks as a d20 roll versus the relevant ability score of the character. Gathox uses a variant of this called Xd6 versus Ability Score. Instead of rolling a d20 equal to or less than the character's relevant ability score, the book uses a scaled number of d6s rolled to simulate the difficulty of the task attempted by the character. This is a good way to introduce more variety to the rolls, and to get away from the flatness of a single d20 roll.

    There are a number of variations to the fighter and magic-user classes in Swords & Wizardry Whitebox (like the Original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, the Whitebox rules only have the three original character classes of fighter, magic-user and cleric). There is no alternative to a thief offered, which I think provides a number of useful abilities to an adventuring party.

    The book does add a Mutant race (Whitebox still uses race as class) that introduces a minimal set of mutations and psychic abilities to the rules. Like with much of the mechanical bits of Gathox Vertical Slum, these psychic abilities aren't just a reskinning of existing gaming materials. There aren't a lot of psychic powers that are offered up, which isn't unusual for an old school fantasy game, but they are flavorful and unique, like the ability that causes the hearts of nearby creatures with fewer hit dice than the mutant to explode.

    One of the best places to bring out the flavor of a setting is in the bestiary (which happens to be my favorite part of a game), and Gathox does that in spades. The book debuts over 40 new, and unique, monsters that set the game's tone. Monsters included in this book include gigantic flying rotten tooth-filled jaws that are the embodiment of the dreams of people who fear losing their teeth, large floating pyramids that are guardians against intruders, intelligent cancers, mutant freaks grafted together from an assemblage of body parts, the ghosts of innocents dissolved in toxic waste and many others.

    The monsters in this book are more than just reskinned existing monsters with new names and descriptions. After all of these years of fantasy role-playing games, it is always good to see designers that are doing more than just reusing the same monsters over and over. The monsters in Gathox have a Fiend Factory feel to them that would not have felt out of place in the old D&D monsters from the seminal era of the White Dwarf magazine that eventually brought us the Fiend Folio for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The monsters are just a taste, however. I would love to see a full bestiary with many, many new creatures come out of Johnson's imagination.

    There are a couple of maps that show how the city of Gathox looks, along with a breakdown of some of the neighborhoods of the vertical slums. In a couple of places in the book there are also descriptions of some of the important NPCs that characters will encounter in these areas. There is plenty of information to get a campaign in the setting rolling.

    Obviously, this book embraces the old school sensibility that settings are presented as a starting point. While there is a good deal of setting information, NPCs and monsters given in the book, the assumption is that (sooner or later) the individual GM will build upon this setting and personalize, or add further details to the setting that develop through play. If you aren't a fan of a setting for which many of the details emerge through play, and the group's interaction with the setting and the rules, then a book like Gathox Vertical Slum might not be for you.

    In addition to the name of the world, Gathox is also the setting's supreme deity. The god Gathox is also worshipped through five incarnations that represent various aspects of the god and its power. If there is one place where Gathox Vertical Slum falls down, it is that the section on the gods of the world is the shortest in the book. While the book puts a lot of work into differentiating itself from the standard fantasy classes, there is really no meat on the bone for people wanting to play cleric. I think that Gathox would benefit from a deeper examination of the gods of the setting, and developing how that impact clerics. Old school clerics often get the short end of the stick while designers look to beef up the roles of fighters and magic users. It would be good to see this aspect of fantasy games developed better.

    What rules set should you use to run a game in the world of Gathox Vertical Slum? While it was written for the Swords & Wizardry Whitebox rules, you could honestly run it with any old school Dungeons & Dragons retroclone in mind. It would run just as well with Iron Falcon or Labyrinth Lord. With a minimal amount of work, you could even run Gathox with the Dungeons & Dragons 5E rules, but the book would be too mechanically light to use with something like Pathfinder without a great deal of work on the rules.

    If you want a setting that is anything but generic fantasy, you will probably like Gathox Vertical Slum. It brings a European weird science fantasy sensibility to whatever game you want to use to play in the setting, a sensibility that we don't see enough of in table top role-playing games. This is a fun and engaging setting, while there are some minor flaws to the book, it still manages to pack a lot of information into a slim number of pages. The originality of the book's setting does a lot to offset much of the flaws of the book.
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. DerKastellan's Avatar
      DerKastellan -
      Whitebox still uses race as class
      I don't think it does. Based on OD&D Swords & Wizardry has race and class separate. I just opened my "Whitebox Complete" PDF and it has separate entries for race and class. Maybe you were thinking of Labyrinth Lord? That has "Race as Class" as it emulates Basic D&D instead.
    1. Tom Ryan's Avatar
      Tom Ryan -
      Last version of Gamma World the "gonzo" one.
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