Wednesday, 21 April 2021

[REVIEW] Crypt of the Lizard Wizard

Jeff Rients, Eat Your Heart Out!

Crypt of the Lizard Wizard (2021)

by Sawyer Young

Self-published

Levels ?Low? 

The clash of different genres and the resulting gonzo aesthetic has been a basic pillar of D&D since its beginnings. The game’s early years are full of bizarre non-fantasy stuff cropping up in fantasy worlds, from fallen starships in Temple of the Frog and Wilderlands of High Fantasy to The Dungeoneer’s less fondly remembered tin foil monsters. Dave Hargrave, barely remembered in the modern OSR, was perhaps the king of this sort of thing, of balrogs versus battle tanks, mantis man and demonkin player characters, and star wizards battling kill kittens. RPG fantasy was yet undefined and without boundaries; and when the boundaries were fixed, something was definitely lost – even though that “something” was often just stupid, random, and ultimately dissatisfying. The tradition lived on here and there; in RIFTS, one of the great summits of traditional gaming; in Encounter Critical; and a few old-school modules here and there (perhaps best in Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which combines a wild imagination with craft).

Crypt of the Lizard Wizard is a module in this manner, and if you look at the ultra-cool cover, you will immediately see what kind of thing it aims to be. Hell yes! And it gets weirder: you are not buying just an adventure in the package, but a home-drawn illustration booklet and the module’s own soundtrack: not since Dragonstrike have such peaks been trod. However, the review is about the module: production values are appreciated, but they should not allow them to cloud our mind!

Crypt of the Lizard Wizard is a mini-dungeon amounting to approximately five loosely typed zine pages’ worth of text, a map (one page), and the illustration booklet. There are no stats, nor much in the way of treasure – but this is an odd module. There are eight keyed areas, which is not much, although all eight are actually descriptions of larger areas than your typical dungeon room, more like a small sublevel in scope. This is not a flaw by itself, but it does miss out on some development potential. In very broad strokes, the scenario outlines a swamp dungeon leading to the inscrutable relics of a fallen high-tech civilisation. It is a wild ride with decaying supercomputers, a step pyramid in a subterranean jungle with a radioactive altar (cool!), and man-eating plant life; mostly linear with the odd detour.

There is fine imagery throughout: “The ruins can be found several miles downriver, towards a morass where the river slowly sinks into the blood-sodden earth. Two heliotrope and crimson moons regularly drift above the primeval stone monument, but never set beyond the horizon.” Or: “Beyond the steel doors lies a temperature controlled walkway, leading to a great glass fixture, and a jungle biome beyond the arched panes.” That’s brief and essential; little more needs to be said to set a scene. The encounters effectively combine technological decay and bizarre bio-horrors. There are interesting interactive elements and environmental puzzles responding well to player curiosity and creativity throughout. Some are always present (e.g. the portable jungle biome always has amphibious leopards, man-eating tulips, and a water generator), and some are added with a room-by-room random content generator whose results can radically change the nature of a baseline location or encounter. For example, the first area where you approach the ruins may have something like “Souls of the swamp fields rise, looking for the enemy!” or something like “It is raining plagued frogs, again.” No two games in Crypt of the Lizard Wizard shall be identical!

It is, of course, too small and the scope is too narrow, like every itch.io release ever made. When we look at the random tables in the different areas, we see some good variety, but this setup actually describes six radically different situations, even though the players will probably only experience one. What if these tables were six actually different places scattered around a wider swamp map? What if it was all developed – not into essay-length entries, but a paragraph each, on a more expansive map? There are no stats, nor even a description of monster numbers. Too much is left ambiguous. Ambiguity is good in moderate doses, since it allows for customisation and a sort of co-creation process between the writer and the GM; here, it just hangs in the air. In many respects, Crypt of the Lizard Wizard feels more like an outline for an adventure yet to be developed than the final deal – the detailed concept document of something bigger. It is a cool grab-bag of ideas but not a good adventure. Much is forgiven if something is done well, but not everything can be.

There is the start of something in this module, and it could be quite good with some expansion and improvement (perhaps something like the Five Cataclysms modules). Imagine the same energy, given more structure and a larger framework. Dare we dream of a 20-40-area dungeon in the same vein? Still not megadungeon territory, but something we can actually bite into. This is the curse of itch.io, where genuine creativity is being wasted for lack of structures and ambition: and in this dark swamp, many talented writers shall be lost! This is one of the better releases on the platform. Even in its present form, Crypt of the Lizard Wizard has its homemade charm, and if I saw it on the Acaeum, it’d easily be classified as some dodgy OD&D-era relic which was still struggling with the ideas of presenting game materials to a brand new audience. It is, however, not the 1970s anymore.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. In fact, even the author is only credited in a small footnote on the last page. Weird flex but OK.

Rating: *** / *****

2 comments:

  1. Sold. Shit like this is what I want to see more of in the OSR - of course with stat blocks and less linearity. As for Hargrave, I wouldn't say he is barely remembered, but he is definitely unavailable since Emperor's Choice went totally silent a few years ago and removed their DriveThruRPG storefront.

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  2. This sounds right up my alley. Nice!

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