Friday, 7 September 2018

[REVIEW] The Sunken Fort

The Sunken Fort

The Sunken Fort (2018)
by Nickolas Z Brown
Published by Five Cataclysms
1st to 4th level

Here is a module following the now mostly lost art of funhouse dungeon design. Where old-school gaming has rediscovered a lot of things about AD&D, Basic D&D and OD&D, there are things it mostly didn’t touch with a ten foot pole. One of these things is the art of creating enormous dungeons stocked to the gills with encounters which make no sense whatsoever except through the lens of game logic. There are exceptions, but not many, and this corner of vintage gaming lies gathering cobwebs and dust, even though it seemed to have dominated the late 1970s. Without writing a separate posts on these classic funhouse dungeons, here are a few features they seemed to have in common:
  • a complete disregard for historical or social accuracy, and little attempt to emulate genre fiction;
  • a fondness for anachronism (elevators, balrog janitors, ice cream parlours) and pop culture content;
  • Disneyland fantasy (modern people operating modern shops and behaving as modern Americans, but dressed up as fantastic characters);
  • the world outside the core dungeon can also be completely abstracted (as seen in early CRPGs: “the Shop”, “the Temple”, “the Inn”);
  • reliance on cartoon logic to design some puzzles (giant magnets and stuff), and out of game knowledge to solve them (the proverbial chess problem on a giant chessboard);
  • interaction with dungeon denizens is possible, but not explicitly encouraged as a “core” feature of dungeoneering;
  • the only true goal is to entertain and challenge the players and the Dungeon Master.

The roots go back to the earliest megadungeons, and for a while, the style’s influence was tremendously influential on computer games – not necessarily CRPGs (which never got the freewheeling fantasy and high-interaction environments right), but text and graphical adventure games like Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure, which ruled the gaming world until their extinction in the late 1990s. Tabletop itself had mostly moved beyond funhouse design by the AD&D period, although late attempts like Jim Grunst’s fanmade modules (The Olde Abbey Dungeon, House of the Hawk, The Tower of Pascal the Bio-Wizard) were still floating around the Internet in the late 90s.

The Sunken Fort seems to have come from a bizarro parallel dimension where OD&D still reigns and dungeons are not Serious Business. It starts on a promising note, with a good rooms per page ratio: there are 80 keyed rooms described in 27 pages. The map never goes off the grid, but that grid is absolutely filled with rooms, and each one has something going on (this is perhaps the main thing separating the dungeon from its trve OD&D peers). Encounters are written up in a sparse format starting with an initial “first glance” summary, and moving onto individual details one by one. It is a fairly minimalist and factual treatment without flourishes or digressions; the background and the “possible lead-in quest” are intriguing (someone or something has stolen a bunch of townspeople’s shadows, and retreated into this ancient subterranean fortress), but entirely optional.

This is where the bizarro OD&D aspects start. The Sunken Fort is not actually written for pre-supplements OD&D (or S&W White Box), but an offshoot that, after a little investigation, seems to be an unpublished homebrew variant. The framework is familiar (everything uses 1d6 for HD, GP=XP is in effect, etc.), but the rules have been tinkered with, and the menagerie, magic and mental framework are “off”. It is a bit like switching on the TV late at night, and happening on a foreign channel with an intriguing TV show you almost, but don’t quite understand. As a positive, this makes for a more authentic OD&D experience than playing something after decades of familiarity: the module’s fire-bats, tube-heads (the only description we get is “1d4 tubular headed creatures with far too many fangs”) and blue hunting bears (intelligent, bipedal, have blue fur and wear tam hats) are almost all new. They are not simple reskins, but – as good monsters do – many of them bring new functionality to the game.

Not Fucking Around
This kind of creativity extends to the encounters. All 80 rooms have a point of interest, sometimes more, and what they lack in window dressing (they often amount to “A ring of purple metal hangs from a string”, or “There are several small crates here”), they make up for in interaction. Beyond the combat encounters, tricks and traps abound: like a proper funhouse, there are always interesting, if crazy things to play with. “A skeleton rests beneath a glass panel in the floor. In its hands is clutched a scroll.” You know there is something to this room, and it is up to you to find out. Or: “The air smells of fire oil, and there are 20 pots on the floor. The floor is littered with the skeletons of mice.” Or: “A pair of legs walks about this room, bumping into various walls.” There are also classics like magic statues, rooms full of doors, rooms filled with black water, and so on. Most modern dungeons have four or five of these “specials” or set-piece encounters scattered around (if that); in The Sunken Fort, they are the main dungeon feature. It makes no literal sense, but in a roundabout way, it belongs there. Characters bit by a golden serpent will bleed gold pieces at a rate of 1 gp per Hp. A puzzle box is solved by tossing your players a Rubik’s cube [notably, a Hungarian invention]. If you start to pick up tiny magic mushrooms, you will be attacked by a swarm of tiny Conjurers (one might get ideas about how this module came to be). A room filled by a writhing mass of limbs and bodies makes for a nasty bottleneck where you can be dragged down and killed if you don’t find a way through. Quick thinking and dungeoneering skills will be put to the test several times.

Now, is this the world’s best puzzle dungeon? It has its flaws. The “special” rooms are mostly one-offs floating separately in the void, with little connecting tissue (the module introduction admits as much, although there are potential links and even mini-quests if you look at the dungeon sideways). And there is too many of them. It is very clever, and amazingly creative, but after so many puzzle rooms so close together, it sort of blurs together. This is a problem. A few such rooms drive the players to try crazy schemes and combinations; this emergent quality can get lost in a chaos when everything is a “special” (and thus, nothing is). The rooms themselves can be one-note, too. Sometimes, it is more fun to discover special features yourself, and here, they are mostly right out there before you. The “digging below the surface” aspect is there in a few places, but it is mostly missing.

Even with all these reservations, this is a good module to show your players what puzzle-oriented funhouse dungeons were made of, and it makes for a fairly authentic booklets-only OD&D experience (again, because it is so bizarre and unfamiliar).

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

5 comments:

  1. I found a working archive link with a mirror of the MPGNET content, including the Jim Grunst dungeons. But which one is The Tower of Pascal the Bio-Wizard? (The others are puzldung.zip hhawkfin.zip and I see you mentioned bl_pir.zip at one point.)

    https://web.archive.org/web/20000207203319/http://www.usc.net:80/~bean/main.html

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    1. Now that you ask, I am not sure anymore it exists. It is advertised in Grunst's adventures as an upcoming module, but I can't find it for the life of me. It might have been a plan that never came to fruition. Great title, though; it has stuck in my mind all these years.

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  2. Thank you kindly Melan for the review! I didn't realize there was such historical pretext to this style of dungeon.

    On your critique of "there's little connecting tissue" what would you personally suggest to rectify that particular issue? This is an old module (my first I made for this system!) and I hope I've improved, but input is awesome.

    Yes it is a homebrew-ish system, and we're working on Publishing the actual rules this month (currently a giant pile of mishmash that needs polish)


    Thanks again!

    PS: I hope your players discovered the glory of the almighty Hedgemon ;)

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    1. random note: I accidentally drew a butt in the cover art, didn't see it til it was too late. See if you can find it.

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    2. I think the dungeon would benefit from stronger links between its rooms and inhabitants. Not necessarily "factions", but areas which affect each other and create a more dynamic environment. There are already thematic links, and the module is good as it is, but more in this area would have been cool.

      (Also, this is not a playtest review, but I'd enjoy running a few sessions in a similar dungeon at a later time, so I will check out what else you have published.)

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