Thursday 27 February 2020

[REVIEW] The Treasures of the Old Kingdom

Treasures of the Old Kingdom

[REVIEW] The Treasures of the Old Kingdom (2020)
by Jonathan Hicks
Published by Farsight Games
Low levels

Disappointment comes in many forms. The cynical cash grab, the sloppy mess, the paint-by-the numbers borefest, the formulaic knockoff, the fantasy module with no sense of the fantastic, the outrageous disaster. None are more tragic than the misguided labour of love. This is the adventure you would like to succeed, but which end up failing. Treasures of the Old Kingdom is a tragic failure, because it is built on multiple fundamental adventure design mistakes. It is not bad because its author failed at doing something – rather, it did because he kept doing the wrong things. Not out of malice, but because we – the hobby, collectively – have failed to make a proper distinction between good and bad adventure design. This module keeps making mistakes in an entirely typical manner – typical enough among many disappointing modules to make me choose it as an exhibit of “DON’T DO THIS!” So here we are.

To begin with the good, this adventure is entirely self-illustrated in an amateurish but endearing style. Nobody will call it good art, but it has charm – there is a soul to it. It is also a module that has a few pieces of good imagery poking out from the bad baseline. A tiny kingdom whose king is little better than a local bandit; a muddy, half-built settlement that’s between an encampment and a new village; its tavern, a great tent with a tree sticking out through a big hole in the canvas; a great ruined statue standing over a river, Colossus of Rhodes-style; a military camp preparing for a battle with invading orcs. These are well realised, and there is certainly a visual imagination at play.
Best Tavern
But these are set pieces. Not interactive bits, not even things which get a part in play (none of the above do). They are scenery in a predetermined story. It is clearly intended as an epic that starts as skirmishes against monster lairs, and builds up into an epic secret quest into dangerous territory involving a mysterious benefactor and an evil magic item… and you get to sail beneath a great statue from a forgotten age (where could that come from?). What actually happens over the course of the adventure follows the stages of a linear narrative, with a fairly inconsequential side quest. You know it will be bad when you see it is set up as a story – “Part One”, “Part Two”, and so on. It is railroading, with a lack of player agency – things happen because they happen, and because the adventure would be over if the players didn’t go along with the GM. If they don’t take the mission… if they follow a different course of action or a different route… if they do something differently than intended… the adventure as written is over.

Meaningful player agency is missing from the big picture, but also from decisions on the level of individual encounters. There is nothing useful to do outside the adventure plot, and there is not much opportunity to do something more than go along. Initially, the players can pick between clearing out multiple monster lairs, a choice which does not matter (because the lairs are simple 1-4 room affairs with little content going for them). Later, they get a Plot Chaperone, who feeds them plot points in exchange for doing as she tells them. Except for the last segment, they don’t have to make hard decisions, or figure out something on their own, or come up with a clever stratagem that saves the day. They are just along for the ride. Ironically, the railroading even removes the usefulness of the content that might actually serve as a basis for something better. For example, there is some not-entirely-bad background info on the mini-kingdom, along with a nice regional map, but it gets no play because it does not matter – the plot train passes them by.
The Kingdom of Cardigul (not actually featured in a meaningful sense in this module)
As it often goes with tragically bad adventures, the proportion of functional and utterly useless content is seriously skewed. A lot of attention is dedicated to background detail (that does not enter play), read-aloud texts and NPC monologue (that only pulls down the experience), and a lot of framing for utterly inconsequential scenes (that are basically filler). There is the obligatory “next morning” section, one of the sure-fire signs the author wanted to write a story instead of playing a multi-player game. Lengthy exposition on trivial material, usually as a way to link important scenes to form a coherent narrative structure. That is the mistake: trying to enforce a vision instead of letting it happen spontaneously. Railroading is not just a removal of player agency. I have observed in many similar modules that it also tends to result in a lot more effort to accomplish simple things than normal. In a better constructed module, one good paragraphs could convey the GM the ideas which several bad ones do not. This is a 28 page adventure which could have easily been two pages (as it stands), or which could have used so many words to give us a much more rounded, complex adventure, and a mini-gazetteer to boot. However, this adventure does not even trust the GM to do obvious, simple things. Paradoxically, it becomes over-detailed in filler sections which do not matter, and remains underdeveloped in sections which might (adventure content).

The adventure’s dungeons are not dungeons. Not in the sense envisioned by D&D’s makers. They are quite minuscule even by lair standards. The lair of the Mutant Ogre is a 4-room cave system, the two optional side-encounters are single-area affairs, and the burial vault – the final objective – is a corridor with four rooms to the sides, and a fifth room at the end. But even this vault has barely anything in it except overlong boxed text focused on mundane detail, and four basic encounters which are slightly fancy combats.

Ce n'est pas un dungeon.
The story must triumph over all impediments, including pesky players. We encounter the typical design tactic of second-guessing. In an early lair encounter, the GM is advised to fudge an encounter:
“If you feel that the players outmatch the Mutant Ogre too much, or they are defeating it too easily, then have another walk in from cave 4 – it seems the Mutant Ogre wasn’t working alone, after all! However, don’t make it too hard for the players as this is their first encounter and there’s a lot for them to do before this adventure is even remotely over.”
I have seen many similar adventures as a player (and have been guilty of GMing them in the past), where, for the sake of “correct pacing”, the GM sacrificed the game’s ability to offer surprises, setbacks, and grand victories. You can never be too clever, or just absolutely lucky, nor can you fail conclusively. If you rise above the “plot zone”, you are hammered down; if you fail, your defeat is snatched from your grasp to keep you trudging along the Storyline – one that is no longer your own.

Later in the adventure, the characters must venture into a war zone to retrieve the MacGuffin, hidden in a small dungeon. A battle between orcs and men rages around them as they race against time to find a hidden switch, but there are no stakes, because the GM is instructed to control the scene:
“Make sure that the PCs who fight aren’t hurt too badly and run the battle as cinematically as possible; the enemy should be easy to fight, foes the PCs can take down with pretty much one hit, and any attacks on the PCs should be weak and lacking damage – minus 1 from all rolls with a minimum of 1. (…) If the PCs do engage in the fight, make it exciting and incredibly tense as the orcs try their hardest to get over the wall and into the compound. (…) The battle is fierce, and just as it seems the walls are about to be breached have Carthean or one of the PCs find the symbol (…).”
Carthean Outlines
the Plot
The culprit is there in plain sight: “cinematically”. This undoubtedly is a cinematic event, but one that makes for a lousy game: the characters have plot armour, their enemies are impotent, and the search for the switch succeeds or drags on purely at the discretion of an all-important Storyteller manipulating a GMPC. The encounter accomplishes the exact opposite of what it sets out to do: there is no real tension or challenge (because things are continuously being fudged to make things a bit easier or a bit harder), and no real accomplishment or sense of victory. A proper setup for this encounter would give the players a puzzle, and a countdown to hold back the tide until they can solve it (perhaps with the provision that on round 6+1d4, Carthean will do it on her own, should the players be absolutely incompetent puzzle-solvers). It would actually make it easier to describe and set up the encounter, and it would give the characters a real sense of beating the race against the clock. But this is obviously not what happens in this module.

It is fairly clear the author does not quite understand the game system he is writing for. It is no accident. The credits reveal it to be a scenario originally made for Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition. I grew up on the Fighting Fantasy books, and love them to pieces – but they are obviously not D&D in their assumptions, and AFF is no exception. For example, D&D awards the bulk of its experience points for treasure – mountains of it. Like it or not (I have my reservations, on which I will write later), GP = XP is the grand equation of old-school D&D. Treasures of the Old Kingdom offers measly bounties of 60 gp (for the Mutant Ogre, going up to 80 if the characters haggle successfully), anaemic lair treasure at 1d6*100 gp (same place), and a princely tomb with “jewels worth 2d6*100 gp”. Or you can always search the trash for 2d6*2 gp (page 7). One thing is made clear here: the author does not know what “treasure” means in old-school D&D – only the final dungeon helps things. But don’t forget – you will have to divide up the loot among the party members.

For another case, let us take the module’s deathtraps, found in the final dungeon. Consider the following:
“Every three rounds the tiles shift colour and if a player is not standing on a red tile (…) a vial of poison gas will drop from a hole in the ceiling onto the player and, if they do not make a Save roll [sic] they will suffer 1d6 damage.”
“The floor is false and once more than one person is on it the flagstones will give way and reveal a drop six foot drop [sic] down to spikes that inflict 1D6 damage if they fail a Save!”
Or even:
“Also, each chest has a 1 in 6 chance of being trapped with a mechanism so that when the chest is opened a poison dart shoots out of the lock doing 1 point of damage per round for 1D6 rounds. These traps can be found with a successful roll, and the dart avoided with a successful Save roll.”
Disregard the typos, the lack of punctuation, the varieties of notation and the wrong terminology, and focus on the principal issue: the supposed deathtraps don’t do their job. They are feeble. Now yes, S&W Whitebox (a.k.a. LBB-only OD&D) is a game where first-level PCs have 1d6 Hp on the average, and damage is also 1d6 by default. Your character might die in them... if you trigger that 1:6 chance, followed by a failed save, followed by an unlucky rolls. Maybe. But these traps will never get respect. Here is a good one, from Tomb of the Serpent Kings:
“When the bar is lifted, the iron pegs begin to rise. When the bar is fully removed a trap is activated. A huge stone hammer swings down from the ceiling, aiming straight for the backsof the now-trapped PCs. It nearly fills the corridor, but there is a small gap on either side. The PCs can:1. Save to Dodge OR2. Use another PC as a springboard, giving them +2 to Dodge but giving the shoved PC –2.PCs hit by the hammer automatically die (or take serious damage, like 2d6+4).”
That is a trap that accomplishes what traps should do in a dungeon: make you very, very careful about taking the next step. I could also mention the ferocious animated statues guarding the vault’s treasures: they have what I would call (pardon my English) “shit HD and damage”. Something that is described as something like a hulking golem-like thing has 1+2 HD, and your regular 1d6 Hp damage. They are worth – no joke – 30 XP each.
That's terror.
I could no doubt go on about Treasures of the Old Kingdom. It seems to be wrong on many levels. But the central flaw of the adventure is that it is not written and set up as a worthwhile interactive experience. Why would you take a game whose central conceit is that you can “inhabit” fantastic characters and attempt the heroics you see in books and movies, and then take that control back through GM shenanigans? It is perhaps the bad question to ask from a small self-published affair like The Treasures of the Old Kingdom. The author did not do this to us. The module’s sins are not his. Other game designers, much more influential ones, did this to the author and all of us. It took so many of us a lot of effort to break free of our mental shackles after being taught – conditioned, even – to Love The Story or face the rats. This is the fate old-school gaming was supposed to liberate us from, and have us appreciate being free once more. And yet we still see this stuff, again and again and again. It is such a sadness.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: * / *****


  1. Never would have thought we'd see a lately released product like this anymore.

  2. Oh the Magritte reference!

    The review is almost poetic at bemoaning the errors of a lousy product - ironically this may be the greatest mark this adventure leaves on the world.

  3. "You can never be too clever, or just absolutely lucky, nor can you fail conclusively. If you rise above the “plot zone”, you are hammered down; if you fail, your defeat is snatched from your grasp to keep you trudging along the Storyline – one that is no longer your own."