by Tony Garcia and Simon Barns
Published by Voxelhouse and Elevated Pachyderm Press
Gentle readers, would you like me to tell you a tale, a rousing tale about a megadungeon in the grand style, a wondrous place of adventure and derring-do? An epic delve worthy of legend, where the very balance of the Cosmos hangs by a string the width of a single hair? A module that shall muse and astound great and small, boys and girls (and various fursonas and demi-kins)? Do I hear a ‘yes’? Jolly good! You only have to do a single little thing before that. You will have to listen to my epic backstory.
Hello, and welcome to my review of The Pit, “a prequel adventure for Xumoria megadungeon for characters level 1 to 3”! This 30-page booklet is supposed to give you a taste of a larger forthcoming adventure – a handful of materials, from a setting guide to an intro dungeon. The cover is a tantalising image of a spiralling pit, based on the famous “inverted tower” of Quinta da Regaleira, and it is an eye-catcher if there ever was one. What you get, then, is 18 pages of “Let me tell you about my campaign”, seven pages of bad railroading, and an OGL, which I must have been one of the few times I was relieved to finally see one; the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
|Welcome to Elfland. Population: Elves.|
In classic bait and switch fashion, much of the booklet has little to do with Xumoria, the Pit, or that cover image. Indeed, it offers a big (very big) picture of the surrounding campaign world. Continents and grand histories are outlined on a breath-taking scale, where the destinies of four races are intertwined. This world reminds one of the much imitated, but never equalled goon project, The Zybourne Clock. Whether it belongs in the realm of the dreadful or the sublime, you must agree that it has ambition. Its continents are tastefully named “Human Empire”, “Orc Reigns”, “Cursed Lands”, “Alfir Reigns”, “Dvalin Lands”, and “Free Reigns”. (The great omissions, of course, being “Desert Continent” and “Commercial District”.) For the curious, Alfir are lean, mysterious, and in tune with nature; while the Dvalin are short, stocky, and “have the so-called Train of Doom, a huge set of steam vehicles, pulled by a ‘locomotive’ and followed by wagons loaded with heavy weapons”. The world of Artrusia is divided into two hemispheres, where the northern practices technology and science, while the southern practices religion, longswords and magic. There are wars over the powerful energy ore, aerolite, and between the various races, which otherwise seem to have little reason for warfare, because each one of them has its own continent separated by bigass seas. The Cursed Lands, where aerolite originates, is the Evil Continent with places like Plague Basin, Terror Mountains, Great Poisoned Desert, Human Mine I, Human Mine II, Port Palmer, Death Oaks, Despair Tower, Daffodil Pass, Orc Mine I, Orc Mine II, Dead Orc Coast, and Lizarbia. Just kidding. There is no Daffodil Pass in the Cursed Lands. Dead Orc Coast does seem like a fine, affordable vacation spot.
However, none of that stuff actually matters, because the adventure is not set in the Cursed Lands, or the Orc Reigns, or Magitech Land, or anywhere close to them. It is set on what old JRPG hands would name “The Starting Continent”, which is a completely average castles-and-taverns kind of place with places called Portland, Gladia, Thunder Keep, and Boldforest. Boldforest is densely forested, while Farpoint is “a flat region, rich with agriculture”. It is at this point where we are finally introduced to Berdolock’s Keep, famed old home to the dread necromancer Berdolock, a.k.a. “Lord Not-Appearing-in-this-Module”. Aptly, Berdolock, or Berdolock Keep for that matter, do not appear in the module. Instead, we now turn our attention to Crimsonwater, a small Podunk town ruled by a character named Armand Valiant (in JRPGs, this would be “Home Village”). This is a serviceable starting location, as it has a main gate, a market square (“Heroes may have their gold stolen by pickpockets”), The Shady Orc Tavern, a Seer, and so on. To be entirely fair, Crimsonwater plays no meaningful role in the module either, except for accommodating the opening scene to the railroading exercise that is this adventure.
We are now on page 18 of The Pit, and all we have seen so far has been tangential to the actual Xumoria “prequel adventure”. No, the introduction is not over yet, for before we begin, we have to treat ourselves to the backstory. This is accomplished by lengthy read-alouds where your characters, as passive observes, are escorted here and brough there, being lectured at by NPCs. When it comes to the obvious question (“Do we accept the adventure hook?”), the adventure solves it in an elegant fashion: “You look at each other, and with a nod confirm your acceptance.” Some of your unruly players might wish to escape after the briefing video, but fortunately, there are helpful servants to escort them back to the tavern, just in case they were getting funny thoughts. “If the adventurers want to stock up with equipment in town, they will be allowed to leave the tavern. The guards insist they return for the night.” Wait, when did this turn into a hostage situation? Who are these fuckers? What do THEY want from us? There is a map of The Shady Orc Tavern where the opening cutscene is set, but it plays no role in the adventure.
|Ceci n'est pas une hexcrawl|
Well, after a page from an in-campaign newspaper that’s kinda just there, there is a wilderness expedition that is a straight-line railroad to Dead City, where The Pit is located. Thus, Crimsonwater joins the sequence of places which do not matter in this adventure, along with Berdolock Keep, which does not matter either (you can kinda see it from a distance midway through the wilderness trek if you crane your neck and look southwards). The module mentions that “A hexcrawl system is used, as shown on the map above.” Well EXCUSE MY FUCKING FRENCH THIS IS NOT A FUCKING HEXCRAWL! A HEXCRAWL IS DEFINED BY FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT, POINTS OF INTEREST AND WIDE TERRITORIAL COVERAGE YOU ABSOLUTE NUMPTIES! WHY I SHOULD
relax. relax. Relax. The module promises “This journey is sure to give you some surprising encounters.” NO IT FUCKING DOES NOT! 1D6 BEARS IS NOT A SURPRISING ENCOUNTER! NO ENCOUNTER IS NOT A SURPRISING ENCOUNTER! 1D6 SKELETONS IS NOT A FUCKING SURPRISING ENCOUNTER! THIS IS NOT WHAT A SURPRISING ENCOUNTER IS! NO!!!
Erm, moving on. So NOW we finally get to The Pit. The titular big bad. The prelude dungeon. The Xumoria teaser. Sure it will… nah. It is just a four-page straight-line affair blocked by keycarded doors that, if it was not written in this bloated way, could be adequately published as a grand OSR innovation, the Half-Page Dungeon. How bad does it get? Welllll. It does get rather bad. Right from the start, it starts fucking with your agency. “As you move further into the room” – no, we don’t! We don’t FUCKING move one step further into the room before we look around a little bit. “You seem to recall seeing reports of similar images found on Old One Island. Perhaps this mosaic depicts Xumoria.” Yeah, that’s great too, not letting the players get away with making that connection on their own and experiencing the thrill of accomplishing something of consequence. Good job.
There is a monster selection that is basically “it is a fire skeleton, but otherwise, it is your regular 1 HD, 4 Hp skeleton with 1d4 extra damage”, “it is six oil beetles”, “it is a carrion crawler”, and “it is four more fire skeletons”. What would be mostly throwaway random encounters in a better module are elevated to set-piece encounters here. There is a trapped passage that is an obvious trap based on the readalout (“The wall has a set of holes evident, all in a horizontal line. Corpses lie on the floor. A quick count tells maybe half a dozen.”) Well GEE, IMAGINE MY SHOCK ADMIRAL ACKBAR! But then you actually need a Thief to detect the blatantly, utterly, transparently obvious trap (“This room is trapped. It can be detected and disarmed by a Thief (if there is one in the party).”)
Progression through the “dungeon” (for lack of a better term) is accomplished by finding themed keys and fitting them into themed keyholes. Moon key, star key, hand key. Not only is it all super-linear, it is rubbed in your face that this experience is a linear sequence of scares, one way only. The rooms are nothing to write home about. There is a room with one casket in it, and four fire skeletons hidden buried in the dirt of the ground (credit where it is due, this is the most imaginative encounter in the module). There is a pantry with smashed junk. A room that’s a small lab with a carrion crawler in it, that has the hand-shaped key hanging from one of its tentacles. A boss monster room. Here is the most disappointing thing: the actual adventure has nothing to do with the cover art, which is not used at all to its potential (which is why I bought the module). There is no spiralling strangeness. There is no descent into a weird underworld. There is only casket room, pantry of junk, and traps that are visible to the plain eye yet require a Thief to detect. It is Adventurer Hell.
After you are done, there is even a closing cutscene with more loss of agency – “you are surprised by”, “you give him the map” – before you are dutifully stripped of protagonist status: your mission taskmaster, Geralt, will be the leader of the expedition to the megadungeon of Xumoria, and you can join him as his faithful followers. But before that exciting day, they pay your tavern bill and you are returned to your room, perchance to dream of bold adventures, treacherous depths, and perhaps… freedom? Nah. Just kidding. You will just get fucked by some GMPC railroad hellplot.
* * *
To sum it up, The Pit most closely resembles a bad JRPG, notably someone’s a very dreadful RPGMaker project. The worldbuilding is a mishmash of bad tropes, the adventure content is negligible, the approach is a horrid railroad, and the action is not worth even a fraction of the hype. It is bad. It is appallingly and comically bad. Worse, it never seems to end, and we are grateful when it finally does. Sometimes the journey is the destination. Sometimes, there is nothing funnier than a shaggy dog story. This time, the journey is a dreadful slog, and the destination is some crappy, derelict shed out in the middle of the great nowhere. I wholeheartedly recommend buying this adventure at full price just to learn how bad it can get. It is a tutorial in how not to make an RPG module, and it will turn you into a better adventure designer and a better person. Read it, learn from it, and do the exact opposite of what it is doing. You will be thankful.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: * / *****