Tuesday 15 February 2022

[REVIEW] Vault of the Warlord

Vault of the
Succulent Grapes
Vault of the Warlord (2021)

by Justin Todd


Levels 1-3

Hello, and welcome to part FOUR 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!

* * *

One of the good ways to make an adventure more enjoyable is to place it within a broader context, ranging from a home base and a handful of rumours to a wilderness section to a full-blown mini-setting. If done well, this can pay off handsomely. Now you do not simply have an adventure location, but you have a place where you can learn about it, hire retainers and buy equipment for expeditions, and talk to NPCs who will also have an active interest in helping you succeed or setting you up to fail. Getting to the adventure may be more than a matter of GM exposition; it may be a risk, or a matter requiring preliminary exploration. Consider Keep on the Borderlands, and why it is superior to a hypothetical TSR module just called “B2: Caves of Chaos”. This is a solid formula to get more bang for your buck, since even a few pages of extra material can greatly enlarge the scope of an adventure. (There is a point where it starts to go into diminishing returns, but we will discuss The Marmoreal Tomb on a different occasion).

As might be expected, Vault of the Warlord is a smallish dungeon with an enlarged scope, turned into a complex adventure combining investigation, wilderness exploration, and dungeon crawling. The module revolves around the titular resting place, now located somewhere near Pine Lake, a peaceful rural backwater introduced in broad strokes. The Vault’s exact location has been lost, and finding the way to one of the entrances requires local investigation. This element opens up the range of options before the characters. There are multiple ways into the Vault, all involving quite different approaches, from following in the footsteps of previous adventurers (whose remains will be found later) to cracking the mystery of the local interest groups (as usual, not everyone in Pine Lake is who he seems), or even partially draining the lake to reveal a now submerged entrance (this will also alter the dungeon’s half-flooded areas considerably). There are simple, interesting decisions embedded in the module, with simple, interesting consequences following from them. They are not illusionary choices; they matter. The easiest way to the dungeon has no return option. Others will come with better, and rather different information to solve its challenges, but perhaps their own baggage.

Mr. Pac-Man? What are you doing there,
Mr. Pac-Man? Oh NOOOOO!!!!
The dungeon, with its 27 areas, is short, compact, and heavy on the kind of punchy dungeon rooms which are fun to mess with. It is also a place which has seen the passage of time (considerable environmental damage, flooding, tunnelling), attempts at looting (sprung, half-sprung, and malfunctioning traps, dead adventurers still shuffling around), and previous tomb robbers making things worse with their meddling (an enormous stone block trap suspended slightly above ground, resting precariously on an upright immovable rod switched to the “ON” position). High interaction, strong environmental storytelling, and interesting (perhaps slightly illogical, considering how small the place is?) random encounters combine into a good mixture. The rooms give you enough rope to hang yourself with, but also enough footholds to turn to your advantage, perhaps even massively. There are some really funny ways to die in here (c’mon… push that button! try to get that rod!), and there are encounters with no easy, straightforward solutions (such as an enormous patch of black pudding which can easily engulf much of the dungeon if let loose), or which will massacre the reckless (the burrow of a basilisk). It is the good kind of funhouse environment, which makes just enough sense to let you suspend disbelief, but otherwise encourages and rewards player creativity. Monetary treasure is very scarce except for the odd magic item you may pawn off (but most parties won’t) – this “XP-poor” environment is noted by the author in a transparent fashion.

The module features terse, matter-of-fact writing. It could stand to be a bit more ornamented, but this is more personal preference than objective truth. The homespun interior art is stickman level but funny, which is vastly more than could be said about anything WotC and its ilk are doing. What stands out is how helpful the text is. The adventure communicates ideas clearly and efficiently, presents its underlying assumptions in a fair way, features effective play advice to customise the module for your group (this is rarely done beyond generalities) or complicate it further to put the thumbscrews on the party. There is good advice in running the module as a one-shot, and even offers eight example characters who come with simple personal hooks for more variety. This is a lot of support for most possible situations. It is not layout hocus-pocus: it is clear, effective advice.

Vault of the Warlord is elevated above the norm by the care that has gone into making it work smoothly, but particularly by how the simple premise of robbing an old, decrepit tomb is turned into a rich, open-ended scenario which offers a lot of ways in, and perhaps even more possible outcomes. It is not big, but no effort has been spared to make it work smoothly. Impressive, and looks like tons of fun.

This publication credits three groups of playtesters. All this effort shows!

Rating: **** / *****

Pusssssh the button. Pussshhhhhhh the button!
Push the button!!!!!

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