by Olle Skogren
Hello, and welcome to part FIVE of **THE RECKONING**, wherein entries of the infamous No Artpunk Contest are taken to task. This promises to be both a treat and a challenge, as the competing entries were written with an intent that is close to my heart: to prove, once and for all, that the power of old-school gaming is found in a fine balance between finely honed and practical design principles, and a strong imagination. That is to say, it is craft before it is art, and this craft can be learned, practiced, and mastered. The following reviews will therefore look not for basic competence – it is assumed that the contest participants would not trip over their own shoelaces or faint at the sight of their own blood – but excellence. The reviews will follow a random order, and they will be shorter than Prince’s original pieces. One adventure, the contest winning Caught in the Web of Past and Present, shall be excluded for two reasons: one, the author plays at my table (and I have previously played in his one-offs); and two, I am going to republish it in an updated edition. With that aside, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!
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Just how much stuff is there in your usual old-school game? How far can you go with the basic building blocks? Give a bunch of creative and driven people the same general kit, and you will find out soon enough. One of them will make The Keep on the Borderland, but with completely new and completely fun content. Another will build a vampire castle. A third will do the island on the back of a giant turtle, with djinns. And some weird guy will just mess with the Lego pieces until they run DooM, thus proving once and for all that DooM can run on anything. The Temple of Hypnos is a module that makes dirt simple D&D look and feel like some bizarre sword and sorcery hallucination, without actually changing anything in the rules. The module takes your D&D adventure to the temple of a Greek-style mystery cult dedicated to dreams, and now a site of mysterious disappearances. Something evil has set foot inside the bucolic sanctum, and turned it to its own malign purposes. There are multiple strong hooks to reel in the company – stealing an idol’s enormous silk tunic for a giant who is too large to enter the temple, helping an insomniac magic-user recover her ability to sleep (can relate… can relate), or beating a force of 100 men intent on sacking the place by… well, plundering the best stuff first.
Not everything about the module is about clever reskinning, but clever reskinning is definitely a central part of it. It is an old and very useful GM trick to “invent” bizarre new monsters by just describing the equivalent of a 2nd or 3rd level Fighter as “a slim humanoid figure, with lush green leaves sprouting from its torso, and roots in place of its limbs”, or “a cadaver in a terrible monster mask, grey from volcanic ashes clinging to the desiccated flesh”. The Temple of Hypnos runs with its theme by describing everything in a way any specific D&D element might look like in the context of the dreaming temple. What were “zombies” are now “sleepwalkers”, semi-catatonic worshippers lost in opiate dreams. “Bugbears” become “brutes of Hypnos”, described as “large men, their shaggy hides and goblinoid faces hidden in robes of midnight blue and beaten copper masks in the image of Hypnos. Their voices are droning and monotone due to the way the mouths of the masks are shaped”. Damn, that’s good! Satyrs, of course, fit right in. The priests are really Magic-Users. It is not a radical idea, just a smart, thorough implementation. Everything in the module radiates outwards from the central premise, and balances variety with internal cohesion flawlessly.
But there is strong craft there, too! As the adventure hooks suggest, this is an open-ended module that can be played in multiple ways. There is a central situation/problem in the form of a night hag who has taken possession of the temple, and who is now a formidable master of this environment in more than one way (recalling Strahd’s role in the original Ravenloft – she has a battle plan, and a fallback option). However, there are many ways towards this problems, and not a few around it – dealing with the night hag is only one option. What the adventure does is introduce a roster of enemies and NPCs who inhabit the temple area, the night hag’s behaviour, an adventure-specific mechanic (“drowziness points”, to simulate the characters slowly drifting towards sleep and dreaming), and then use these elements in different combinations through the room key. The main challenge then becomes to adapt to this environment, learn the patterns, and either disable/evade them or turn them to your advantage. This sort of “environmental hacking” is always satisfying to see in a module, and The Temple of Hypnos provides ample opportunities to engage in it. There are alternate degrees of risk-taking for an enterprising party – do you dip your toes or go in deep? Mess with the barricaded section which is probably barricaded for a very good reason? (Editor’s note: it is barricaded for a very good reason.) You decide. Help the temple’s priesthood, put an end to them, or just sneak out with some nice prize? Your call.
The room key first describes the temple grounds with 6 loosely keyed areas. This is stage-setting, although you can see the craft already from the interesting nature of the situations you encounter – “field of opium poppies and edible herbs worked by 2d6 zombies overseen by acolyte of Hypnos (2nd level)” and “30’ doric column overgrown with vines. A satyr at the top piping a languid tune that carries far” are the kind of images that stick. It is, however, the temple where the author’s creativity is on full display. I was fully on board when I hit on this gem in the Anointing Room (4):
“Ceiling only 10' high. Bronze squid with leather sack body hangs from the ceiling. Black stains on the floor. Pulling its two longer tentacles it squirts fragrant black oil (olive, soot and herbs – adds 1 drowziness). If emptied completely the oil will cover the entire floor of the room.”
Hell yes! This is why I signed up. This little detail is perfect – the strangeness of an artificial suspended squid, the ritual use, the fragrant black oil, and the consequences of using this temple device – it encapsulates the essence of weird fantasy in a single side encounter. “It is going to be a 5, right?”, I asked myself with some concern. “Of course”, I responded, reassuringly.
The locations make sense as the mysteries of a weird dream religion, like an enchanted garden of sleepers crossed by a milky stream laced with diluted poppy milk, or an orgy around the triumphant idol of Hypnos. They are also highly interactable – there is a lot to do in a multi-layered environment, from looting the precious décor (which is where the treasures are mostly hidden) to messing with the temple denizens to interacting with weird dream experiences. Audible and visual cues are used to lead deeper into the complex (or, in a memorable case, to “a domineering satyr (…) teaching an increasingly frustrated bugbear the harp”), or into devious traps (such as a pool inhabited by a multitude of shadows). The treasures are fun, and it takes some attention to find the really good stuff, like an antelope horn hanging from a wrist strap on the limp left arm of a priest (wand of magic missiles), or a library of rare works on scrolls. This is a high-density dungeon. The encounters are close to each other, and they often involve a lot of “stuff”, sometimes all kinds of moving parts on stage at once. While the writing is excellent, it takes GM processing power, especially if a multi-room situation develops – so read carefully, underline, and prepare to be tested!
Much about The Temple of Hypnos recalls the better Judges Guild products: a willingness to think beyond the basics without actually breaking the game with runaway rule inflation (it is almost all core), creative encounters, the care taken to make the scenario useful for very different gaming groups. Most of all, though, it is the willingness to go fantastic, and let the alien beauty of the imagery guide you. It is all very well done. Highly recommended. And damn good showing from a module with zero production values.
This publication credits a playtester (was it a solo game?) and a proofreader.
Rating: ***** / *****