by Jeff Simpson
Published by Buddyscott Entertainment Group
Hello, and welcome to part THREE of **THE RECKONING**, wherein entries of the infamous No Artpunk Contest are taken to task. This promises to be both a treat and a challenge, as the competing entries were written with an intent that is close to my heart: to prove, once and for all, that the power of old-school gaming is found in a fine balance between finely honed and practical design principles, and a strong imagination. That is to say, it is craft before it is art, and this craft can be learned, practiced, and mastered. The following reviews will therefore look not for basic competence – it is assumed that the contest participants would not trip over their own shoelaces or faint at the sight of their own blood – but excellence. The reviews will follow a random order, and they will be shorter than Prince’s original pieces. One adventure, the contest winning Caught in the Web of Past and Present, shall be excluded for two reasons: one, the author plays at my table (and I have previously played in his one-offs); and two, I am going to republish it in an updated edition. With that aside, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!
* * *
Sewer levels are the ugly runts of computer games; the retarded, poor, red-headed orphans everyone enjoys kicking while they are down. Accordingly, designing a sewer level people will not reflexively write off as crappy is a bit of a challenge. It is easy to see why sewers get a bad rap. Not only are they unpleasant environments, they tend to self-limit the kind of things you may meet in them: yeah, there are the rats… and wererats… and I guess cultists and thieves… yeah, maybe an ooze or an otyugh. Surprisingly few people do more with their sewer dungeons, and this will not do. It is time to make sewers great again!
Swords & Sewercery is a short and sweet module describing a city block and the sewer passages underneath. Short, in this case, means really short: each of the two environments gets a little more than one page, and individual keyed areas tend to be two or three lines in length. There is a further page with a comparatively lengthy background on the city of Salo and its factions, as well as an appendix with wandering monster charts, rumours, and new monsters/treasure (they bend the contest rules… slightly). This, is, clearly, a minimalist affair, usually the domain of disappointing sludge. And yet… it isn’t, and the reasons for that are the scope of the material and the imagination on display.
First things first, this is a comparatively large affair crammed with stuff. A lot of mini-modules tend to be 16-20 pages with a playable area of 8-12 locations (if that); Swords & Sewercery has 18+6 above ground, and some 31 in the sewers. That’s a handful! There is precious little empty space left on two excellent maps; furthermore, the encounters tend to have good conceptual density, high interaction potential, and a strong style. They embody Bryce Lynch’s favourite hobby horse, “expressive terseness”. The above-ground section is a teeming slum of questionable establishments and dirty backyards to get stabbed (or, as it happens, get dragged off by ettercaps or torn apart by a gargoyle – ouch!). The clients of illicit drug dens rub shoulders with bandits, members of Salo’s busy secret police, and Resistance operatives, all of whom operate deposits, safe-houses and shops in the area. There is a lot to this single city block, from a cockfighting ring to street food vendors and a holy brothel. It is the condensed essence of Lankhmar, Haven, City State of the Invincible Overlord, and similar sinful cities rolled into one.
It gets even better underground: this is, in fact, an exceptionally interesting sewer, populated by a criminal underworld of bizarre NPCs and strange encounters. There is an undermarket selling junk and scraps, a sewage conduit where lepers pan the effluvium of an upscale restaurant for gold crumbs, a crazy goop-bottling machine operated by an insane Magic-User (with magical drinks to sample), and the residence of an ogre mage who keeps a group of mongrelwoman concubines. Most of these encounters transcend standard investigate/fight/flight responses – things can get fairly complex and non-linear, as the inhabitants know of things they want and can offer knowledge or items in exchange. You can run errands, rat your allies out, meet monsters completely out of whack for the designated level range, and have a whale of a time. Even some of the comparatively minor encounters have good stuff like “There is an otyugh eating garbage here”, or a ceremonial fountain used by cultists, and inhabited by a water elemental. Things that don’t force you on a single course of action, but let you develop your own schemes. All of this is complicated by an encounter chart which has an honest-to-goodness grell on it. Way too good.
Far from perfect, something that should be obvious to anyone, the author included. The utter minimalism of the encounters is limiting, even if they are overflowing with cool basic ideas. There is a sort of depth, coming from play, layering and refinement, that is just missing. For example, the streets level and the sewer level are connected, but not interconnected; they do not form a single whole where you can decend a sewer hatch and emerge in the back room of that brothel-temple. The same is true of the various plot threads, which do not reference each other across the two parts. Ironically, the conceptual density is just too much at times. The material feels too busy, without sufficient empty connecting material to let it breathe and develop a sort of pacing. It is a non-stop sugar high. And of course, a lot of the monsters don’t have stats. (Is this trend going to be the defining feature of “No Artpunk”? I remain unconvinced!)
Swords & Sewercery is not a refined module. It feels like the result of a hell of a brainstorming session; more properly, the beginning of something rather than the ultimate product. A draft-version before the playtesting session where the pieces fall into their correct place? Something like that. However… there is something here that’s really good, the crazy leaps of imagination and enthusiasm from the OD&D era which is rare to see these days. High energy. It is easy to imagine the author fitting together a bunch of similar city blocks (perhaps leaving some space empty) into a massive CSIO-style map, and doing something similar with the sewer/undercity section. Not over-polished, not over-produced, just fixed up a little and expanded just slightly. THAT would easily be a formidable city supplement, with a clear path to a 5/5. Make it happen!
No playtesters are credited in this publication. Woe!
Rating: *** / *****