by Brad Kerr
1000 Swords is a 24-page dungeon adventure with 19
keyed locations, and a heavy sword theme. How heavy? More swords than you can
stake a stick at, and that’s a sword-shaped stick with another hidden sword in
it. The temple of Gladio, God of Swords, is overflowing with a myriad swords;
they have been collected into enormous piles and mounts, swept to the sides of
the corridors, flung into watery caverns, and just scattered here and there. Furthermore,
as seen on the cover, parts of it are based on the tarot; and if that would not
be enough, the temple dungeon is split between two rival factions, a band of
menfolk and the platypus-based humanoid drukks fighting their age-old
battle through the temple corridors. There is a strong weirdo energy to the
module; it is absurd, but it is a working absurdity, just on the dividing line
between the plausible and the ludicrous. It is wickedly funny.
Most everything is smooth and polished. Brad Kerr understands adventure writing. The booklet is finely balanced between the utilitarian and the flavourful. Information is placed at your fingertips; cross-references are impeccable, and there are helpful notes to help you understand and run the scenario. “Accessibility” is sometimes overdone (this seems to be a problem with official Old School Essential modules), but here, it is just right.
And the content is strong. Random encounters introduce interesting variations on the “it attacks” theme: a gelatinous cube full of swords, a “tumble-weed” of amassed swords rolling towards the party, or the aftermath of a bloody battle. There is a special magic sword broken into nine parts (appropriately called “The Nine of Swords”) to track down and reassemble. Above all, a 1d100 table of weird swords you can find if the party starts searching random sword piles for something interesting. Since Gladio can turn anything into a sword, this could be anything, including (taking five random rolls) a tin sword, a scissors sword, a star-shaped triple sword, a fishing rod sword, or a ceramic sword. This strange table is the sort of thing in a module that takes up relatively little real estate, but like Tegel Manor’s portrait gallery, adds an entire new layer to the exploration process.
The temple rooms are populated by two interesting factions of utter idiots. The drukks are bloody, short-tempered platypus-man brutes. The mermaid queen is an unhinged, vainglorious fool who offers to marry anyone who can bets her in combat. This is a great way to encourage player initiative: make the enemies dangerous, but with wide open flaws to be exploited and turned to your advantage. Elsewhere, there are ample opportunities for strange discoveries and interacting with dungeon denizens, including the dead, the damned, and a living god who is surely played by Brian Blessed, and whose “sole concern is that people kill each other with swords.” Gladio is a dick, and he is great.
The whole module
is a riot, and a springboard for further adventures. All good. Except... Why
does an otherwise excellent module I have only praised so far receive three
stars instead of an upper four? There is a flaw running through the scenario,
and this flaw is the map. Yes, it is a map with multiple branching routes,
interesting secret passages, and water (an under-utilised feature). But it is
too small for what it is trying to do; basically a central dungeon loop with
minor appendages attached to it. There are consequences. The random encounters
make little sense, because it is a small, compressed space which is all keyed
and populated with encounters. There is insufficient room for the random
critters to come from, to retreat to, or to ambush a surprised group. There are
two factions who have supposedly been waging bloody war against each other for
several years, but these are pipsqueak groups (4d6+3 mermen vs. some 3d4+6
drukks altogether), and they live right across each other with only a corridor
to separate them. Some battleground! Imagine Red Nails playing out in a
small college dorm, and you get the idea:
Not quite the Temple of
1000 Corridors, is it.
“’Aye, she went willingly enough. Tolkemec, to spite Xotalanc, aided Tecuhltli. Xotalanc demanded that she be given back to him, and the council of the tribe decided that the matter should be left to the woman. She chose to remain with Tecuhltli. In wrath Xotalanc sought to take her back by force, and the retainers of the brothers came to blows in the Great Hall. There was much bitterness. Blood was shed on both sides. The quarrel became a feud, the feud an open war. From the welter three factions emerged – Tecuhltli, Xotalanc, and Tolkemec. Already, in the days of peace, they had divided the city between them.’
‘And where might these men be found’, growled the Cimmerian with his mouth full.
‘See that door on the left, barbarian? That 30’ by 20’ chamber be Xotalanc territory. And that 10’ by 10’ storage closet yonder, there dwells Tolkemec, the Dark Shadow! Beware his coming!’”
It lacks a certain oomph, don’t you think?
What Temple of 1000 Swords needs is room to breathe, to have grandiose empty halls and convoluted corridors separating its 19 main encounter areas. It needs to be a real dungeon in the old-school sense. Consider the following: if you extended the map to about three or four times the size, made it much more maze-like, and inserted 30-40 empty rooms, meandering hallways, chokepoints, bypasses, and secret passages, now you would have something. You could have drukk and merman factions with reserves of 50-70 warriors each, duking it out. You could have long stretches of space where random encounters can happen. You could have a general dungeon texture to be navigated and where discovering a “special” area is a meaningful find. Let the sword generation / random encounter table take care of the rest! And you could have room for a range of player decisions. Now that would be a kickass module (and if you redraw the map yourself, it will be).
Temple of 1000 Swords is an absurd idea taken to its logical conclusions, an inspired shitpost in module form. I find it genuinely funny, and mostly well done, but the map is a letdown. This problem is, of course, a malaise: 5e and other modern editions feature so small dungeons that vast underground spaces are a forgotten art even in old-school gaming. The use of empty spaces, especially, is under-utilised. (Yes, I am as guilty of overkeying my dungeons as other people.) Nevertheless, the point stands: the map matters, and here, Temple of 1000 Swords could use much, much improvement.
This module credits its playtesters, and has a nice special thanks section to boot. Classy!
Rating: *** / *****