Sunday, 4 April 2021

[REVIEW] Fire in the Hole

Layout magic: No fucks given
Fire in the Hole (2021)

by Derek Jones

Self-published

Levels 4–6

This adventure is one of a rare breed: a Castles & Crusades scenario. While much of the modern “OSR” owes its existence to an ancient flame war among C&C’s playtesters, the game itself does not seem often discussed, and the official adventures have not really ignited the public imagination. However, Fire in the Hole – an amateur module available for the cost of ONE Dollar Americain – is not only a recent publication, but an actually decent effort. It will not win awards for cover art by OSR luminaries (being a white page with a page number and Times New Roman text on it), nor layout (using mostly two-column Times New Roman), nor digital maps (the maps are perfectly legible scanned pencil work), but it is a fine modular scenario to fit into an ongoing campaign, and occupy perhaps one night of gaming.

Fire in the Hole has a strong “little people have big problem” premise: while extending the wine cellars of hobbit gentry Mr. Thistletine, the workers found a mysterious tunnel leading downwards. One worker lowered with a rope disappeared with a horrid scream, and was never seen again. Adventurers were called in to investigate. On the other side of the tunnel, we find a dungeon level populated by a band of gecko-men, who raid the outside world through maic portals. These not particularly formidable, but decently organised chaps are divided between their allegiance to a chief and a group of scheming priests, offering opportunities for sowing division and making short-term alliances with the dungeon inhabitants. Or just killing them all without going into deep contortions about their motivations (sorry, gecko guys). It is all small-scale, petty, and walks a fine balance between “raiding humanoid lair” and “strange underground place”: low-concept, just done well.

The area where the module shines is found in its basic construction. The dungeon level is a real pro effort of alternate routes, ambush points, reserve barracks and hidden passages. A loud and messy assault will end up with a bloody and desperate corridor battle against overwhelming odds (even for a strong party). Quick and decisive action and some improvisation helps lead to victory. The level’s relative openness allows the characters to execute a surprise strike (and the entrance hole is right in the heart of the gecko-man lair), but also to have them surrounded and cut off from escape.

The quality of the design shines through in the small details. The order of battle provides an outline of gecko-man defensive measures, while the random encounter chart features them engaged in random activity – “tormenting a cuddly little animal” and “plotting to harvest a little stink-juice from the troglodytes” are possible outcomes, providing not just colour, but information and a possibility for more complex interaction. There are “barrack rooms” treated correctly; in a few broad-strokes sentences or just as a room name instead of meticulous-obsessive detailing. Special rooms with a stronger spotlight receive more attention, as they should, and they showcase the adventure’s imagination and whimsy: a forge staffed by mechanical ogres who will cart off fallen combatants from a melee to forge them into enchanted bone weapons. A tiny pocket dimension accessed from a fire pit. A magical tapestry which follows the balance of power on the level through what it is depicting. A less powerful and less deadly cousin to the deck of many things, with fun draws like “enmity between you and Squishsquash, a water elemental” and “gain service of an ogre”.

Not everything is good. Fire in the Hole repeats C&C’s annoying “feature” of embedding whole stat blocks into the flowing room key, perhaps the least practical solution ever devised for presenting monster info. The tactical setup, while it represents one of the adventure’s main strengths, is a bit too tight in the beginning. There is a non-negligible possibility that the characters descending into the very first chamber make enough noise to bring the whole combat roster down on their necks. In this case, the adventure may take place in a single cellar room; and should the company be victorious, the rest will be a not very challenging mop-up operation in a dungeon largely emptied of its defenders. In this case, having the first areas be lax and even temptingly easy should deliver a more even play experience. There could be a bit more treasure.

In summary, Fire in the Hole is a labour of love, and a very fine effort if a beginner work. It has charm, good fundamentals, a very solid map and combat setup, and the right scope for a modular one-session adventure. It fulfils the original promise of Castles & Crusades. It is just one buck, too, making it much better value for the money than pretty much everything from itch.io.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

 

15 comments:

  1. This is my first attempt at publishing an adventure. It's pretty exciting to get a review. Thank you!

    I'll incorporate your feedback when doing my next module, particularly the criticism about embedding the stat blocks in the middle of paragraphs. I could tell that wasn't working well when I did layout, but it didn't register that I should actually fix it.

    The treasure criticism is interesting. I was afraid I put too much in! I must be a stingy GM (which, thinking back on my campaigns, is probably very true).

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    1. The treasure values are fairly low for games which mostly award experience via the gp = XP formula, and operate with large parties - this tends to be the case with many old-school games. It is not anything game-breaking; treasure can be added, and the magic items here are interesting.

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  2. What’s that mention about a flame war between C&C playtesters sparking the OSR?

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    1. Troll lords didn't believe they could produce a true 1E-type game legally; some of their playtesters said "Hold my beer" and went off and made OSRIC.

      Then everyone realized WOTC wasn't going to contest clones, the original games were out again as restatements, and voila. OSR.

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    2. This is more or less how it happened, although it was *very* acrimonious!

      Something like OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord would have eventually happened if the C&C playtest didn't blow up the way it did, but this was the historical accident that set events in motion. (My dissatisfaction with the same materials took me in a third direction with Sword and Magic: you will see where that system went with Helvéczia.)

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    3. We need a book about the origins of OSR. As a newbie I feel I lost A LOT.

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  3. If you really want to see all the details, you can find the posts on Dragonsfoot, but that’s going to be a deep dive of research. Short version: when the OGL was first released, Troll Lord Gamed started developing what became C&C. Some people were ultimately disappointed that it was its own game instead of being something like OSRIC (i.e., a pure retroclone). A very small group of posters (5 or fewer, IIRC) got worked up about it and had a flame war.

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    1. Thanks, there's no need. I was just wondering and the above answers are good enough. I wasn't around for the early history of OSR so it's interesting to hear.

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    2. I think the main thing to keep in mind is that the flame war involved a VERY small number of people. It is easy to get the impression this was an event involving every old school player with an internet connection.

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  4. I'd be interested in hearing the reviewers suggestion about how to handle those stat blocks. Other than saying they were 'not good' there was no actual mention of *what* is wrong with them.

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    1. It is there: the monster stats are embedded in the encounter text instead of being presented separately. They break the text and make it more confusing to use at the table. For example:
      "The gecko men keep 5 troglodytes (HD 2d8; HP 8 each; AC 15; Move 30 ft; Attacks 2 claw (1d2 each) and bite (1d4+1); Special: Stench (within 30 feet save vs. CON (-1 per troglodyte) or suffer -1 to hit and damage), Darkvision 90 ft; Saves P; AL CE; XP 18) in a pen here. The troglodytes will be driven at intruders by the guards in area 14."

      Here is how it should look:
      "The gecko men keep 5 troglodytes in a pen here. The troglodytes will be driven at intruders by the guards in area 14.

      Troglodytes (5): HD 2d8; HP 8 each; AC 15; Move 30 ft; Attacks 2 claw 1d2 each and bite 1d4+1; Special: Stench within 30 feet - save vs. CON (-1 per troglodyte) or suffer -1 to hit and damage, Darkvision 90 ft; Saves P; AL CE; XP 18."

      It is simple editing. I know the format used in the module is the C&C standard - and I found it disagreeable even the first time I encountered it in the mid-2000s! Not a major issue, of course.

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    2. Melan’s criticism of the embedded stat blocks is very fair. If you’re curious about the module, it is viewable in its entirety as a free preview.

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  5. I'm glad I came across this post. I've had the pleasure of being in a PbP game GM'd by Derek and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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  6. I am going to redo the layout to move the stat blocks out of the room description paragraphs. I’ll upload it to DriveThruRPG so everyone who purchased the module will get the updated file for free.

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