by Jonathan Hicks and Greg Saunders
Fire Ruby Designs
Low-level (not D&D)
Warlock! is one of the games that have taken inspiration from the old-school movement, but gone off in an alternate direction to do their own thing. It is in the “B-OSR” tradition, drawing “from the early days of British gaming”, and using Fighting Fantasy as well as early WFRP as the basis for its rules. I do not own Warlock!, and this review is not really concerned with system analysis – it looks like a nice, slightly grimy take on adventurer fantasy – rather, what one of the game’s flagship modules has to offer.
Bridgetown describes the titular settlement, before delving into an adventure set therein. Bridgetown, shown on a wonderfully drawn cover by Yuri Perkowski Domingos, is a charismatic location, and the best thing about the module. A former trading settlement built on a massive stone bridge spanning a mighty river, Bridgetown had flourished, and then gone to the dogs as it lost its former prominence and got overtaken by the dregs of humanity and monsterkind. It is presently a big free-for all lawless territory, with a somewhat organised shantytown on one end controlled by “Mayor” Felicity Grendel, the most vicious brigand leader in town. It is an ideal adventuring environment to get into trouble in a small, compact maze of derelict buildings, get knifed in the back, or become involved in shady enterprises.
Here we hit one of the book’s structural issues. How do you present a complex environment like a semi-abandoned town/dungeon? You can go ahead and key some or all of it, or you can abstract it down to procedures and abstract systems like encounter tables and location stocking charts. Bridgetown does neither of these sensible things. The map it offers is definitely more indicative than representative (mediaeval architecture does not work that way with free-standing houses, especially not prime real estate on the limited extent of a bridge!), and no main landmarks are given until the included module. But neither are there functional tables. What we get instead are random, scattered idea seeds we can spin into adventures. Notes on Felicity Grendel and her new taxation schemes. A strange madman offering rumours and quests. A Thieves’ Guild operative. A random events chart. This is not bad, but it does not help with actually running a crawl into the bridge environment. You can of course fudge it, which I suppose is the standard new school approach, but it still leaves you thinking there could have been more here.
38 pages of the 60-page supplement are taken by the adventure, The Trader’s Entreaty. This is clearly the core of the supplement, since the rest consists of four very cursory mini-encounters added as an afterthought (5 pages). The setup is a standard get-the-macguffin plot: retrieve a previous family heirloom for a merchant, who believes it to be lost somewhere in Bridgetown. It is made interesting by a spell scroll that lets you “trace” an object’s passage from owner to owner, and location to location: thus, you are strung along via leads until you finally recover it.
As you might
assume, this is a fairly linear affair, arranged into six scenes, each centred
on a situation to solve before moving on to the next plot point. Throughout the
adventure, we see the standard problems of post-old-school module writing that
have plagued gaming for decades. Excessive boxed text that includes lengthy
read-aloud NPC exposition, and occasionally assumptions of player actions (or
non-action, such as multiple cases where the party gets into an ambush even
though the places they are walking into are fairly obvious traps). It is longer
than it needs to be, and more restrictive than it needs to be. There is a
series of “incidents” to spice up moving between the scenes, from environmental
hazards to “monsters attack!”, although there is no proper framework to use
them beyond the wishy-washy “Do this as often as seems fun – keep the player
characters on their toes!” The setpiece encounters leading to the macguffin
are decent, with elements of gang warfare (mostly described as straightforward
combats instead of more interesting situational challenges) and a few showy,
high-budget locations like climbing on top of a derelict belltower while
avoiding missile fire from a bunch of goblins camping out on top of a nearby
tower. This is the strong suit of the module, although the solutions are always
implied to be one particular thing, and there are no provisions for getting off
the beaten track (e.g. by missing or misinterpreting a clue), or getting back
on it. Then there is an utterly predictable boss fight with an endless stream
of lesser enemies until the characters neutralise the big bad
knockout power kung fu code appropriate response, and the inevitable
conclusion where your idiotic Mr. Johnson commits suicide by going for a
frankly suicidal double-cross. These fuckers never learn. (Just in case, the
macguffin is cursed, so you don’t actually win anything by holding on to it.)
It is easy to talk about old-school orthodoxy in module design, or the rigidity of Mr. Bryce’s best practices when he guts another hopeful module. It is true that orthodoxies can be detrimental or limiting. However, they are in place for the lack of better alternatives in scenario design. (These do exist, and there is a particular methodology for investigative scenarios, but they are not used here.) It seems that games based on old-school principles, and even the newer clones themselves, understand the rules of old-school games very well, but pay comparatively little attention to the surrounding procedures and practices of play which are equally important. When people could still be assumed to have access to, and familiarity with the original rulesets of the past, this common wisdom was widely available, only requiring rediscovery. Today, for an increasing number of people, it is no longer self-evident. Without structure, the games devolve back into the morass of bad ideas that characterises adventure writing outside the old-school sphere. This is the main issue with Bridgetown: it works with excellent ideas and images, and the aesthetics are tops, but it shows weaknesses in translating them into a successful scenario structure. The art is in place, but the craft needs more work.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: ** / *****