Tuesday 24 July 2018

[REVIEW] Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb (2018) vs. Borshak’s Lair (1976)

Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb (2018) vs. Borshak’s Lair (1976)
by Kiel Chenier (and Paul Jaquays)
Published by ZeroBarrier Productions (and Paul Jaquays, reprinted by Judges Guild)
1st to 2nd level (5th edition D&D) vs. low-level (OD&D)

Orcs in Tarodun's Tomb
A sepulchral tomb. Magical tricks and traps. Brutish orcs guarding a vast underground treasure.” This is how Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb describes the “quintessential first-time D&D experience” it seeks to recapture in this beginner-oriented scenario. It rings a Pavlovian bell. Many of us have played this adventure in one way or another. In your case, it might have been Keep on the Borderlands. In my case, it was a mine, and my character was killed by the orcs in one of the early rooms, but close enough. I don’t think Orcs in Tarodun’s Tomb is a good low-level orcs-in-a-hole module, and I will outline why below.

It may not sound fair, but I will compare it to the gold standard of low-level orcs-in-a-hole modules, Paul Jaquays’ Borshak’s Lair (it is found in The Dungeoneer’s Compendium, one of the more accessible and affordable of the forgotten classics). The two are fairly comparable:
  • they are both low-level affairs (although Borshak’s assumes the YUGE OD&D-style party of several PCs and flunkies);
  • they are both short: Borshak’s is 7 dense, typewritten pages, with an updated, cleaned-up version in 13; Tarodun’s is 16 with breezier layout and frequent illustrations); 
  • they share the same premise and aesthetics (vanilla fantasy, both rooted in their respective era).

And yet, Borshak’s makes for a hell of a beginner mini-dungeon, and Tarodun’s doesn’t. What makes for the difference?

I have said it before, but here it is again: like most of the modern mini-adventures, this one lacks scope. In its day, Borshak’s Lair would have been considered a mini-dungeon: nevertheless, it has 29 encounter areas, and it is brimming with creative encounters. Based on a circular layout, it is a small, complex environment divided between a humanoid-inhabited western, and a haunted eastern half; it is full of magical enigmas, tricks, and secrets, and there are oodles of vicious combat with hordes of enemies. In comparison, Tarodun’s Tomb is an eight-room lair: mostly a linear sequence of encounters with a mini-boss, a puzzle, and a final boss. Even considering changes in the style of play since the 1970s, and the more involved tactical combat of recent editions, this is a huge difference, and a shame. The width and complexity of Borshak’s opens up the playing field to enable strategic decision-making within a fairly compact space: there are many ways the scenario may play out, the players (or the orcs) may use the terrain to their advantage, and there are numerous exploration opportunities. You will never find everything in Borshak’s, but you will find a lot of stuff even if you don’t pay too much attention. Tarodun’s Tomb does not offer these possibilities: you can’t do much more than move through the dungeon and deal with the encounters as the GM dictates the pace. Even if you find everything, you will not come away with much. It is bite-sized, and linear.

The Map Problem
There are differences in the approaches you can take. Physical space does have an effect: where there are multiple routes through, you can find more or less direct approaches, try stealth or an ambush (essential against numerical superiority), and perhaps even avoid the denizens directly in your way. There are even voluminous drapes to hide behind and exploit. In a linear lair dungeon, these possibilities are not present. The same goes for a more social approach. In Borshak, only two of the orcs (their Hero leader, and a magic-user underling) have personalities, but the presence of different dungeon groups may be exploited as different factions (although it is not known if this was a common thing in the 70s, it features heavily in Jaquays’ later work). In Tarodun’s, although the orcs are suggested to be women, and they can be customised through an optional random table, the possibilities of out-of-the-box play are more restricted. Admittedly, there is a shortcut allowing the company to “hack” the adventure by either making off with the treasure with minimal confrontation, or letting two opposing forces in the mini-dungeon fight it out. This is very nice, and the best thing about the module, but there is too little of it.

The encounters have a different depth in the two modules. Tarodun’s doesn’t offer much beyond a little descriptive detail and some extra looting. The encounters are functional, but one-note. There is an inexplicable double-cross where an NPC saved from certain and painful death will decide to fight her saviours (who are bound to outnumber and outclass her) to the death. This is, no offence, dumb and a terrible lesson for beginners; the absolute nadir of the adventure. There is a central “keyhole puzzle” gating off an area which has one way through (two if we include the secret shortcut). This is not a good thing. You can’t do much with it. Borshak’s Lair is brimming with ideas. There is an intelligent magic amulet who can be an asset or a huge liability. The central area has a “bottomless pit” teleporting you into an insidious trap, an evil orc prank, and five ways forward through secret passages (some of which can also be used to hide baddies who can assault the PCs from all sides). In the next room, there is an animated statue who is really a cursed Hero compelled to fight the party. In the middle of the barracks area, there are four statues with special powers/functions. It is funhouse design, but you can fiddle with things, find secrets, and secrets-within-secrets-within secrets (there is a trap containing treasure, concealing another treasure hoard guarded by a dangerous monster).

Finally, let’s consider the module’s suitability for the “quintessential first-time D&D experience”. There is a philosophy which says first adventures should have training wheels, and should not be too overwhelming. I don’t think this is a good approach, particularly in the age of ubiquitous, affordable digital entertainment. Providing a focus for play is fine (“here be orcs and treasure, have at them!”), but I fully believe RPGs should be sold by highlighting their full creative potential. In a truncated scenario, you will find out the game’s limitations (slower pace, lack of visual stimulus), but never discover its versatility and freedom. Tarodun’s Tomb has the same limits as every eight-rooms-in-16-pages module on RPGNow. You don’t get Borshak’s compact-but-complex experience, and you don’t even get the Caves of Chaos from The Keep on the Borderlands (let alone the full, rich B2 experience with the Keep’s intrigue, the killer wilderness, and the digressions hinting at a wider world). You get one cave, and for all the ‘Bree Yark’ it can provide, the magic of interlocking mini-dungeons, the mystery of several cave mouths opening before you in the sides of a ravine, the hazards of picking the more dangerous areas are not present. Tarodun’s Tomb does not serve as a good gateway to gaming: it is a cat’s flap into a 10’ by 10’ supply closet, with orcs.

This adventure module is not badly written (in fact, the text is fairly terse and well-presented via bullet-point lists), and the information is structured efficiently. The map is pleasing to look at, with good cross-hatching. The stock illustrations are nice. I like the cover. But it is not a good scenario, for beginners or otherwise. Where recent old-school offerings are considered, get Tomb of the Serpent Kings, a far superior beginner scenario with all its structural issues (just in quantitative terms, 52 keyed areas in 22 pages) and forget this one. Or roll up a YUGE party of retainers and hangers-on, and go for broke in the Caves of Chaos or Borshak’s Lair.

No playtesters are listed in this publication.

Rating: * / ***** vs. ***** / *****

Tuesday 10 July 2018

[REVIEW] Tyranny of the Black Tower

Tyranny of the Black Tower (2018)
by Extildepo
Published by Verisimilitude Society Press
3rd to 5th level

Do Not Judge a Book By Its Awesome Cover
Fell things are afoot in the village of Scarabad. Since the disappearance of a benevolent wizard, the locals have lived under the brutal rule of the evil lord Nim Sheog, who extorts and plunders his own people while letting the nearby goblins wreak further havoc. The Black Tower, the fortress built on the hilltop overlooking the village, sees everything. It is time for a brave band of adventurers to investigate what is amiss and set things right.

This adventure starts with a great illustration promising wahoo action, and offers an excellent initial impression with its skilfully drawn, interesting location maps, but ends up delivering an altogether different, disappointing experience. The bizarre monster the adventurers are fighting is just an afterthought to a much more mundane scenario describing a farming village ruled by an evil landlord, his castle, and the castle’s dungeons. It follows in the tradition of the “fantastic realism” you can find in The Village of Hommlet, but lacks the latter’s versatility and scope. There is a lot of “tell” (superfluous background information and lengthy explanations pointing out the obvious) and much less “show” (play-relevant details the characters may fruitfully interact with). You could cut the page count in half without losing anything interesting, and you would still have a wordy adventure in your hands.

This is a problem of presentation, but there are similar issues with the content as well. Fantastic realism succeeds when it presents interesting, believable conflicts and situations where setting logic and history matter, and can be applied in the course of complex problem-solving. It does not work here, because the situation is not very interesting: Nim Sheog is a clear baddy responsible for some evil stuff, the village denizens who receive a description are opposed to his reign, and the imprisoned wizard in his dungeon is basically benevolent. The decisions you can make in this environment are mostly obvious. On the other hand, the infiltration of the Black Tower and its dungeons, the defeat of Nim Sheog or the freeing of the wizard Bibotrop take place in an adventure site that’s not very interesting either. The tower is a succession of common rooms you’d find in a tower (guard posts, bedroom, a great hall, etc.), containing the obvious things you’d put there on the basis of their names. The dungeon rooms are fairly standard as well. There is also a kind of bet-hedging that leaves a bad aftertaste – a protective item that “only works against this particular [monster] and no other creature”, or treasure in the form of precious jewels (“quartz or diamond, Referee’s choice”).

The module should be playable, and you could get a decent gaming session or two out of it. However, the realism it brings to the table is the boring kind, and the overwriting does not help fix this impression. There is something seriously wrong with the idea density it offers – too much padding, too little meat. Without the sense of wonder or tactical complexity that defined the early TSR modules, what we are left with is a rather one-note village setting, a generic dungeon full of the obvious, and – ironically – a decent extra dungeon map that is left underdeveloped. I don’t think this module is worth bothering with. It is not really bad, but it is boring, and that’s probably worse.

No playtesters have been listed for this publication, but multiple signs point at it having been playtested.

Rating: ** / *****

Wednesday 4 July 2018

[REVIEW] The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre

The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre (2018)
by Nate L.
Published as a blog post
1st level


Yes, that's the map
Creativity does not need production values. The essence of role-playing is DIY, and self-expression manages to do fine without worldly concessions like interior art, layout, or formatting. This review is about an adventure published as a blog post, with a map that’s a mobile photo of a notebook page, complete with the author’s thumb (the map itself is a collection of interlinked boxes, untidy scrawl, and hard to decipher numbers). It is the cat’s meow. As the author describes it, “I made this for my first level players, who stumbled into it while poking around the start town and avoiding the other dungeon I made. It's hidden under a statue in city hall, so they have to do a little sneaking or run a scam every time they want to go in. It's not too lethal, there's a moderate amount of treasure, and it's not too big.” It seems to be written for 5th edition (this is only an educated guess), but it converts easily and it is as old-school as it gets.

Lord Vyre, former ruler of Fishtown, had constructed a secret underground garden under city hall, first as a retreat for Franndis, his elemental lover, then as her prison when their love went sour. Now, a hundred years later, the place has gone both wild and strange, inhabited by unlikely creatures and enigmatic garden ornaments. It is a surreal underground garden setting with a strong sense of the fantastic: nothing is by the book, and everything is magical in a lush, dreamlike way. Dangerous topiary; temporal distortions; poisonous gemstone flowers; a dream tiger smoking cigarettes of scented herbs; the grave of an elf “who committed suicide by staring at a poisoned star for a year and a day”; a giant tree with three mould-covered corpses crawling among its roots. There is also a killer peacock that’s a lot like mine from The Garden of al-Astorion. Simple and powerful imagery that combines effortlessly with organic puzzle design: in their odd, otherworldly way, the encounters make sense and make for fair puzzles. The adventure follows its theme scrupulously, but also demonstrates the principles of good old-school dungeon design.

The Secret Garden of Lord Vyre is a reasonably open-ended scenario in its 37 keyed areas. The layout is mostly open, but the range of possibilities is mainly thanks to the range of NPCs you can befriend, avoid or fight. The NPCs, encountered randomly or in their lairs, are a colourful lot: a black cat who knows secret paths and doors, but “[o]nly the first thing he says in any conversation will be true.” A troupe of dancing, merry skeletons preceded by their songs as they get closer (they will kill you without mercy). Faceless men who are excellent chess players and who serve the garden’s more powerful beings. All (well, most) of them have both interesting ways to interact with them, and imaginative special abilities if it comes to a confrontation. This is all new stuff.

I am pleased with the writing. In a recent conversation with Patrick Stuart, we were discussing evocative vs. opaque writing. This is an adventure I’d bring up as a good example of how good writing can combine colour with descriptive clarity. It is more a collection of notes than flowing prose, but it does a proper job communicating the feeling, function, and purpose of the encounters. One NPC, the King of Flowers, is described as “(…) a blue-robed man, his hands are bright red, he wears a crown of roses. He can hear through any flower in the garden. In his footsteps bloom flowers.” The main antagonist “plays solitaire and knocks tunes on a painted and hinged turtle shell, which thumps in heartbeat”. It is not overdone, but it is neat.

Once again, this is not a published module in the traditional sense. What you get is somebody’s raw game notes with minimalist explanations, but it is fairly easy to understand after giving it a good read. It is advisable to spend some time with the map, whose numbering is rather counter-intuitive (with related things appearing out of logical order), and which is hard to read. I would just redraw it to commit the thing to memory.

All in all, it is great. It does something original while also being well-designed. Grab it, put it in a document, format it a bit and print it for your home game – or encourage the author to turn it into a published adventure. It deserves wider exposure.

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