by Jacob Fleming
Published by Gelatinous Cubism Press
Low- to mid-level
In a sense, the mini-sandbox is one of the holy grails of old-school gaming. The idea of a home base, a wilderness with minor points of interest, and a dungeon or three to top it off is the clearest expression of a home campaign. From Hommlet to Herth, and from Bone Hill to The Forsaken Wilderness, the pattern has been unbroken, even if relatively few published modules give you the whole sandbox, toys included. (The Vault of Larin Karr, for mid-level PCs, is the best example in print that I know of.) This is one genre which is easier to build piecemeal at home by the game table than prepare in a publication-ready format.
In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe, a 60-page, zine-format module for Old-School Essentials, is a fully realised mini-setting describing the locales of the Gemthrone Wilderness, a mountainous territory arranged around a central valley occupied by a particularly dense and dangerous old-growth forest named The Labyrinth of Shadows. Dwarven settlements and ruins ring the central valley, connected by well-mapped trails; the Labyrinth is trackless and inhabited by the most dangerous monsters. In addition to wilderness exploration procedures, the module provides a description of five settlements (including the town of Karn Buldahr) and nine dungeons of various sizes (from 5-6-room lairs to a main feature with five levels and 33 areas total). The power curve goes from beginning-level to some fairly deadly stuff – maybe 4th to 5th level or so. Rumours, mysterious glyphs, treasure maps, the remains of an advanced ancient civilisation, and local politics complicate the picture, and create a layer of connections to bring it all together.
Silveraxe follows the trends in vogue in the modern
old-school gaming scene. It is heavily focused on tight editing and effective
presentation. Every page spread is laid out in a precise way that eliminates
the need for page flipping: all the maps and key you need are there before you.
The dungeon maps are precise and clean affairs, with local random encounter charts
tucked into a corner. I was particularly impressed with the wilderness cartography,
which takes the form of an elegant hiking map with contour lines, trail
distances, and points of interest. This format has lots of potential, and I
hope people will do more with it in the future. (Minor nitpick: my inner
textbook editor is screaming in rage at sight of the page numbering, which puts
odd numbers on the left and even on the right. How dare you.)
Hiking Trip, But With Hobgoblins
Here we come to the Achilles heel of the module. Following trends in vogue in the modern old-school gaming scene, Tower Silveraxe has sacrificed interest for accessibility. It is well-rounded, impeccably made, nicely interconnected, but the content is just sort of mediocre. One could call it vanilla, but the term is misleading. For instance, the original TSR modules were often quite vanilla, but even so, they always had interesting twists like the orc/carrion crawler caverns/weird shrine under Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, or the pool room and the whole “retired adventurers’ home base” aspect of In Search of the Unknown. Unfortunately, this is the “generic, flavourless” sort of vanilla that works with standard tropes and does not really improve on them, or use them innovatively.
A lot of the module text is remarkably facile. Consider Karn Buldahr, the dwarven town. There are 14 keyed locations, very few of which actually add anything beyond the baseline. The Traveller’s Inn is “a modest inn, just outside the western gate, (…) welcoming to all travellers, even in the early hours of the night.” The Stables are “Owned and run by Kreel Coalbraid. Only mules and carts are available to purchase.” The guards are stout. The General Store & Outfitters sells adventuring gear. The Crafters Quarter is “where nearly all skilled crafters conduct their trade.” There is very little here that could not be improvised on the basis of “Dwarftown. Population: dwarves”. Karn Buldahr occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between minimalism, which does not give you much, but occupies little place, and an actual in-depth treatment which elaborates on the basic concepts until they transcend a generic quality. Here lies the trap of the format: it is all on a spread of two facing pages, which either stifled the author’s creativity, or made him stretch a thin concept beyond its sensible limits. In fact, Karn Buldahr does have things of interest which deserve notice: a theatre putting on modernist plays everyone goes to but nobody confesses to not understanding (the Quirk differentiating the place from other dwarven towns), the local tradition of The Airing of Grievances (the Detail which drives home the dwarven connection), and a magic-user looking for crystals (the Adventure Hook). There are four decent rumours. This is good stuff, surrounded by several paragraphs of eh and meh.
Similar problems affect the nine mini-dungeons. The size is all right for something you find in a wilderness (although Bone Hill would beg to differ), and the concepts – looted tomb, abandoned mine, haunted tower, cave shrine, etc. – are good, with decent variety. It is, again, the encounters which suffer. They are very rote, very standard dungeon encounters of the monster/treasure/trap variety, missing a sense of wonder or deeper challenge that would make people start to pay attention. The treasure is usually coins contained in chests and such, and generic +1 items. The monsters are usually small groups of standard critters. You don’t get the “oh crap, 45 goblins! How do we solve this one?” kind of encounter here.
The encounters end up remarkably shallow. Many details in the key add nothing to the information already found on the map:
“Large room with six huge stone pillars. 2 doors – one south and another goes east on the north end of the room.”
“There is a tunnel to the north and a door to on the south wall. The room is empty.”
Seemingly interesting details do not, in fact, add to the interaction potential of the module, and are left as undeveloped cyphers:
“This room contains many shelves of books. A library for the elf stewards.
>> Books: All journals and logs written by the elves throughout the centuries.
>> Treasure: 3 spell scrolls (shield, knock, and hold portal)”
“The stairs descend to a large room with four large statues of figures with heads bowed. At the end of the room is a sturdy iron door.”
If you read that
last one, your spidey sense is probably telling you this is going to be a great
“deeper level” setpiece with a portcullis trap, animated statues, poison gas,
flooding, or monsters attacking from behind secret doors. But nothing really
happens, and the imagery is left unexploited. Of course, not every such room
needs to be a deathtrap. Red herrings play an important role in messing with
the players and either deplete their resources or lull them into a false sense
of security before the iron door mimic eats them for lunch. Too bad this is a
pattern that repeats through Tower Silveraxe, and most similar
opportunities are also missed. There are a few exceptions: good foreshadowing
down in the main dungeon, which offers progressive hints of a large, dangerous
monster’s presence; a cyclopean idol with an obviously telegraphed but still
oh-so-fun poison gas trap; or mysteries which span multiple adventure sites.
However, the majority of encounters in the adventure are very plain, and the payoff
of finding something really unique and off the wall is not present. This is a
shame, because the setup is virtually crying out for it.
Touch the Eye.
Touch the Eeeeye!
In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe is, therefore, a module with excellent structure and relatively weak content. I would not want to savage it – there is obvious craft in how it is put together – but I cannot help but believe the “layout-correctness” has not helped this one, and that it does not live up to its own implicit promise. Your players would probably have a reasonably good time playing it; it does not make any egregious mistakes, and just letting the players loose in the sandbox often produces a spark that sets even middling material aflame. This is what it is: solid, functional, but falling way short of excellence. Potential for improvement? Yes. Room for improvement? Yes, and lots of it.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: *** / *****