Sunday 30 July 2017

[REVIEW] Tomb of the Serpent Kings

[REVIEW] Tomb of the Serpent Kings
by Skerples

Tomb of the Actual Production Values Update
Tomb of the Serpent Kings is a freely distributed 15-page introductory adventure module found on the Coins and Scrolls blog, which manages to outclass just about all the 15-page introductory adventure modules I have bought on RPGNow with real money. It was apparently conceived as a tutorial to introduce players to old school gaming, and presents a three-level, 52-room dungeon filled with encounters that aim to teach lessons in good dungeoneering. On a first read, this idea can sound terrible (tutorial areas have a deservedly bad reputation), but it all works out pretty damn well – although not without problems. It is a simple product with sparse production values: two-column layout, a decentish map, and a few pieces of art by Scrap Princess in that characteristic scratchy-creepy style.

Why is it good? It is not easy writing introductory adventures, and I believe most modern examples are done badly. If generic sixteen-room lair dungeons in eighteen-page packages are the bane of old school publishing, this goes doubly for intro modules. They try to hold back and limit themselves so the players don’t get overwhelmed, and in that exchange, manage to kill off the “wow” factor which makes tabletop gaming pop. They show you the goblin lairs but not the humanoid-filled ravines where you will be massacred if you don’t learn caution and cunning. They give you the abandoned ruins and evil brigands without the crayfish in the moat that will neatly cut your first character in half, or the lurking shadow mage who will suck the life right out of you when you infiltrate his lair. But most of all, they don’t give you the grandeur, complexity and depth of the full tabletop experience. You can’t do much in them, accomplish much in them, and they end after a few measly encounters. The players get crippleware, and then they wonder if this is it before they go back to whatever they were doing. Not here. This is real.

Tomb of the Serpent Kings does that thing introductory dungeon crawls should do, but usually don’t: put the fear of God, the wonder of the unknown, and the feeling of well-earned accomplishment into the players’ hearts. It feels like descending into a dark and odd place where a lot of things will try to kill you if you are not careful, but you will be rich and powerful if you pull it off. And that is the real thing. There is a shortish entrance level that has a few stray traps and a little treasure, and then BAM!, a deathtrap that can kill a careless and unlucky character in one ugly *splat*. It is on! That’s when everyone at the table starts paying attention.

What follows is a tomb that becomes increasingly more open, more hazardous and more strange as you progress deeper into it. It deals in potent imagery. A chasm that falls away into untold depths; a pool of filthy waters with treasure and a terrible danger lurking at the bottom; a broken columned hall haunted by a chained and hungry basilisk. It goes deep, and it is large enough to feel mysterious. The text is to the point without losing its flavour. It is good minimalism. Brief boxed text explains the purpose of the various areas, and there is even a quick reference with the most important descriptive and functional features (more on this later). This is the right combination of colour and solid, functional game design, and the right mixture of exploration, confrontation and interaction.

While exploring the complex, the players get acquainted with typical dungeon features like traps, intuitive puzzles, open-ended problem solving, pattern recognition, recognising repeating elements, environmental hazards and the like. By the end of it, they will probably learn to act as a capable team of explorers. The loot is often hidden in places where you feel clever after discovering it (it is a fairly modest amount, and seems to use the silver standard – use a multiplier if you are playing straightforward D&D). There is varied combat with a roster of interesting enemies; from undead to dungeon fauna to intelligent opponents. There are two boss battles which feel fairly JRPG-inspired (with special signature moves too!), but are actually fairly nicely integrated into the old-school D&D experience.

Excuse me Sir, do you have time to talk
about our lord and saviour, béarnaise sauce?
Enemy design is one of the module’s main draws beyond exploration. You can study and exploit the behaviour of the dungeon’s inhabitants to your advantage. Even the unintelligent ones have interesting behavioural patterns, and the intelligent ones open up opportunities for interesting alliances and creepy bargains. The monsters are described very well; full of personality. They all have a “Wants” entry in their stat blocks which is a lot of fun: Skeleton Jellies want “to squish heads and make more skeleton jellies”, while Fungus Goblins – described as having a “texture like baked potato mixed with white glue” – want “a king, food, shiny objects, more food”. It is simple and neat, and always colourful.

However, this is not a flawless module, neither on its own nor as an introductory scenario. For all the good content, the meat-and-bones of the dungeon is presented in a really bad way. There has been a lot of bellyaching in recent years about breaking the confines of the “boring”, “limited”, “user-unfriendly” standard location key, and coming up with new ways of embracing the new possibilities of modern layout, computer screens or what have you, but there is a good reason the original format became a standard. The alternative seen here looks like a failed 70s experiment in trying to describe a dungeon. It is a mess.

The dungeon key is written in a stream of consciousness format that is less cleanly demarcated than the location key (e.g. “Rooms (12) through (16) are tomb chambers. … The passage to room (12) contains a pressure plate”). This could work, but instead, part of the information you need to use the module is found in the “quick reference” section at the end of the module, and it is not all duplicated in the main text. Then you get to the monsters, whose stats are counter-intuitively in neither of the two, but yet another part of the appendix. Don’t forget that you also have to handle the map. It is a logistical nightmare trying to pay attention to four things at once (this does not yet include the players), and I pity any beginning GM who tries to learn running games with this package. In practice, as I was reading the document, I was either constantly flipping through the pages or missing/forgetting important information in the quick ref section. It is plain uncomfortable. I have no idea what would have happened in a chaotic, high-pressure actual play situation where you must divide your attention among a table full of people.

As “user interface”, this experiment fails utterly. As something for newbies, it is inexcusable. You can alleviate some of it by separating the map/quick ref sheet from the main document (par for course in the age of printouts), but still – why? It creates a lot of problems without solving any. You could easily incorporate the quick ref information into the room entries, maybe even as a standard “at a glance” section, and you’d get a lean, functional package. And of course, the monster stats could also go there.

The lettering on the map is really bad, using an inexplicably hard to read font. The map itself looks good with solid, clean draftsmanship, but it could use much more in the way of cartographic symbols – columns, rubble, statues, the works. This is a minor issue compared to organisational matters, but it is there. A random encounter table is hidden in the back as an afterthought. It needs a little more signposting, because it is a good one.

The suggestion to reskin the adventure with a different theme if you don’t like serpent-men is puzzling, precisely because how serpentish the place feels. Why substitute something if you have achieved a specific mood so well? (Granted, I am a sucker for serpent-men, and have been ever since I ran The Sword of Rhiannon, which blew my mind after the much more laid-back Lord of the Rings.)

All in all, this is a gem in the rough. Very shiny, very rough in some spots. It is released as “version 2.0”, and it may receive future updates – I hope it does, because if it cleans up some of the user-unfriendly aspects, it has the potential to become a very solid adventure that also does a good job at what it sets out to do, all for free. It also proves you don’t have to run a Kickstarter and hire an art department to create something good. You can just go out and do it. And that’s the spirit.

Rating: *** / *****

Monday 24 July 2017

[REVIEW] The Tomb of the Sea Kings

[REVIEW] The Tomb of the Sea Kings
by Lawson “Blood Master” Bennett with Jimm Johnson
Published by The Scribes of Sparn

The Tomb of the Sea Kings
When the idea of self-published adventures started to get traction with the OGL, homemade PDFs, OSRIC, POD, and a lot of things which make our lives easier, this is how I imagined our bright future would be like. People with low budgets and big ideas putting out dodgy little booklets with questionable but lovingly made artwork and a heaping of sense of wonder. The true DIY spirit would recognise no boundaries, and creativity would triumph over commerce and production values. And a little bit of that happened, and some of it didn’t, and ten years later we are in a crazy world where Guy Fullerton’s Hoard and Horde list contains 1,530 entries, RPGNow’s OSR section contains 1,614, but you actually have to look carefully to find a supplement that fulfils that original promise and does it well. This is one of those supplements.

Tomb of the Sea Kings looks exactly like the weird little booklets you want to find at a convention or used book store, and it reads like a love letter to funhouse tournament modules like White Plume Mountain and Ghost Tower of Inverness. It wears its love for old school gaming on its sleeves. It is unapologetically homemade and strange. Nobody would ever run with this kind of art in a professional outfit, and no serious author would write a scenario where you get to fight stone skeleton archers in a room filled with lotus flowers whose pollen will turn you to stone in 4 rounds. Those serious people are wrong and Lawson “Blood Master” Bennett and Jimm Johnson are right.

Tomb of the Sea Kings is just about the right size for an adventure module with a total of 48 keyed areas – it has enough meat on it to last, but it doesn’t try to take over your campaign. I wish more modules were this size, and not those eternally disappointing anemic affairs which litter RPGNow and the general internet. It is presented as a tournament scenario, and it almost certainly won’t fit into an ongoing campaign (except perhaps a rather odd one), but it’d be a rather good one-off for an experienced group of players or at a convention. Like many TSR modules, it gets a lot less serious as you leave the straight initial premise and get deeper into it.

The two-level dungeon in Sea Kings is all about the strange ideas you have when you release your inner thirteen-years-old killer DM, but you are old and experienced enough to make those ideas work. Tomb of the Sea Kings has not much rhyme or reason (the eponymous Sea Kings are featured in only two or three encounters), but it has a lot of puzzles and puzzle-like things which are textbook Gygaxian D&D. It is good adversarial GMing, where you will routinely run into “screw you” situations if you try to play what’s on your character sheet, but you’ll have a good chance of pulling it off if you have the right combination of inquisitiveness, caution, and a penchant for thinking on your feet. It feels very unfair (particularly towards thieves), but if you look at it closely, following game logic and coming up with improvised solutions will mostly save you, or at least give you a fighting chance.

This Is Art
The encounters in the dungeon are silly and fantastic, and instead of thematic coherence, have a stream-of-consciousness associative feel to them. You have the Blood Freezer followed by the Vampire Room followed by the 3D Goggle Room followed by the Rotoscope Dragon Room (one of my favourites), then the Spriggan Room and the Anti-Vamp Room. There are gleefully evil rub-your-hands-while-cackling-maniacally traps, great setpiece puzzles, and about the right amount of combat with powerful enemies. You can die right in the first room, and you have to choose your battles to avoid getting worn down by the time you get close to the ultimate prize. The rooms are often illustrated with lovingly rendered scribbles which completely capture the module’s idiosyncratic style, and are quite helpful for the GM in rounding out the sparse but effective room descriptions. There is a pull-out sheet in the middle of the booklet with the dungeon maps and a helpful stat roster that’s a very good, utilitarian touch.

Now the module isn’t flawless. It is excessively linear (although with lots of red herrings along the way), probably as part of its tournament heritage. Some of the rooms are one-note, “here is a vampire”, “here is a room where there might be 1-2 Anti-Clerics”, a bit disappointing in comparison with the inspired craziness elsewhere. When you can come up with the “Anti-Cleric Hourglass Room” or the three-room Gold-Silver-Copper puzzle, it is easy for the reviewer to start having high expectations. While the monster stat blocks are generally helpful, they follow this annoying tendency of not assigning spells to the module’s generous range of spellcasting opponents; and you also have references to random, letter-coded treasure types. As much as campaigns vary, modules should at least give a general idea in these cases, and we will customise them to our hearts’ content if they don’t fit.

All in all, this module does what it sets out to do, and it is exactly the kind of thing I would like to see more of. It has a personal style, it doesn’t let decorum and publishing standards get in the way of having fun, and the DIY is with it. It is worth owning in print – the Lulu booklet is pretty damn nice, and it is an example of “trade dress porn” that feels just right.

No playtesters were credited in the adventure (but it was apparently run at multiple conventions with great success).

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

Sunday 23 July 2017

[REVIEW] The Flooded Temple

[REVIEW] The Flooded Temple
by Morten Greis

The Flooded Temple
Hidden in flooded ravines lies an ancient temple on the bordering the realm of death.” So begins this 18-page adventure about a ruined multi-level temple and the rival monster factions that inhabit it. The scenario was originally written for Hinterlandet, a Danish old-school system, and it is billed as “[a]n OSR-style low-level adventure for daring adventurers using the greatest roleplaying system of our age”. It is the GM’s responsibility to decide which of the several hundred D&D-like systems that “greatest” refers to, and to substitute the appropriate stats – a fairly easy task, since the module mostly features standard monsters with small changes that largely affect their description.

This kind of light customisation is one of the adventure’s strong points. You are not just encountering kobolds, bugbears and lizardmen, but kobolds who have contracted a terminal disease and use the ruined temple as part of an elaborate (and rather creepy) death ritual, bugbears who are here as part of a coming-of-age test, and lizardmen who have arrived to claim the temple for their own purposes. Just adding the players would create enough chaos to make the adventure run itself, but a fifth party – an evil cult looking for the same thing as the PCs – adds a dynamic, timed component to the experience. There are a lot of ways this combustible mixture could blow up, and you just have to supply the burning fuse to light it up.

Also add the ruined temple-complex. This is one exciting structure. A building cut into the sides of a gorge around a flowing river, reminiscent of Petra and just the kind of location you’d expect to see in an Indiana Jones movie. You can row your boat right to the front entrance. You can infiltrate the place through one of several large windows. You can swim through a crack in the wall. You might even climb up on top and descend from above. Parts of the structure are flooded, and there is a central open-air courtyard bypassing multiple levels which allows for a lot of rope-related tomfoolery. This opens up the scenario and lets the players devise crazy plans which may or may not work, but, combined with the factions, will invariably result in a lot of chaotic fun. There is a central mystery, too, more Indiana Jones stuff revolving around puzzles and a little archaeology. You decipher clues hidden in the decoration and unearth mysteries. The treasure is very scarce (even by conservative standards), but it comes with interesting dilemmas (“Do we dare loot this dead guy who has seemingly succumbed to a terrible tropical disease?”), and the magic items are all superb sword&sorcery fare; full of mystery and danger.

But “factions” and “temple-complex” is perhaps putting things too generously. Three of the four factions are represented by single encounters clustered in one room, while the temple is your typical 20-room affair (25 if you count sub-entries) in a very compact space. There is simultaneously too little and too much. Forget the often criticised “monster condos” of early dungeon design, this is pretty much the equivalent of letting an adventuring party loose in an apartment block. When it blows up, it blows up.

I am conflicted about these design choices. Things are close enough together that something happening in one room should have consequences in nearby rooms, and since the temple is a neat 3D structure with lots of connection points through staircases and the open courtyard in the middle, this means any action can start unpredictable chain reactions. It can be great if the GM can pull it off, or it can lead to confusion and missed opportunities (“Damn I should have let the bugbears come and search the area”). Certainly, you need to study the adventure very carefully to run the faction interactions effectively, something the lengthy and sometimes opaque text doesn’t always help with. There is too much exposition, and some of the room entries run too long to make it effective.

Like this, but with kobolds
And of course, it is too small. Yes, I have been beating that drum through many reviews (and many more I could have written, but didn’t), but it does in fact matter. The temple is too small. There is not enough space to develop the web of alliances and conflicts sufficiently. There is not enough empty room where chance encounters and conflicts can take place. There are no out of the way sections where something could be lurking (and lurk it should!). There are not enough side rooms to hide when someone is coming. Things can’t really happen between two factions because once someone raises a ruckus, everyone will be looking on. Think of Red Nails taking place in a small, tight condo instead of a sprawling ruined city. It lessens the concept, and robs the adventure of its potential.

It appears to me that The Flooded Temple is balanced on the edge between the kind of disappointing mini-adventures I have been too dispirited to review lately, and complex, imaginatively written scenarios which take the Caverns of Thracia playbook and use it to produce interesting, open-ended adventures where the clash of opposed agendas can produce shaky alliances, shifting tactical situations, and unpredictable bursts of violence. It is almost there, but not there. The strong visual imagination, sense of place and the potential for internecine strife give the adventure its charm. It could be truly excellent if the map was twice the current size, and had roughly the same number of keyed entries (or perhaps a few more areas without plot relevance), while the writing was edited a little for length and utility. There is much promise here. I hope this promise will one day be realised.

No playtesters were credited in the adventure.

Rating: *** / *****