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: *** / *****

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