Hello, and welcome to part EIGHT 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!
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Can you do proper homage to the greatest of all TSR modules: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan? Tamoachan’s dark shadow looms high over even the greats, and presents the perfect weird pulp adventure: Meso-American mythology synthesised into complex AD&D setpiece encounters, a diabolical timer in the form of slow-acting poison gas forcing players to think on their feet, a dilapidated environment where the passage of time has created puzzles and dangers equal to the magical enigmas resting in Tamoachan’s undisturbed tombs... and even whimsical stuff like a talking slug. The Hidden Shrine has it all, and its boots are hard to fill!
City of Bats draws ideas from the module as well as a mixture of Meso-American myths at their strangest. The result is a two-level dungeon presented on lovely homemade pencil maps: a slightly linearish set of caverns called “Cave of the Mists” (16 keyed areas), followed by the “City of Bats” proper, a more open lost city/caverns mixture with numerous side-branches (34 keyed areas). This is good size. It feels like a proper expedition to a distant place, where “getting there” is already an adventure. You do not even start in the Cave of the Mists, oh no! It first takes a treacherous ascent on an ancient, crumbling road that “zigzags its way up a barren white cliff face to the top of the escarpment”. Pack animals and mounts each have 1:20 of plunging to certain death. Then, chopping your way through “dense jungle infested with poisonous tropical reptiles”. Then, descending down into a “yawning rock fissure some 40’ long by 20’ wide, opening down into a vertical cavern” – a shaft that comes alive with a myriad bats each dusk. And then, you find yourself down there in a cavern, its floor marked with an enormous petroglyph of a bat, the sign of Camazotz! Hell yes! This is just an opening section, but it sets the scene: here you are, far from civilisation, the way back to recovery as costly as getting here, and the true dangers lurking ahead – as effective and iconic as anything. And then you still have to traverse a cavern level before you get to the subterranean city – by the time you get there, you will feel like you have earned it. Masterclass.
And indeed, City
of Bats continues to deliver. While the encounters are nowhere near
Tamoachan’s baroque (and a bit weighty) complexity, it is still a superb “mini-Tamoachan”
where everything is a bit simpler and smaller in scale, but the same guiding concepts
are put to good use. Mythological concepts are translated to game encounters,
as in the case of a dreaded “buzzing demon”, the city’s guardian, or the
various servants and followers of Camazotz in the city below. These are named
beings, some of whom may be interacted with, and some which are just weird and
freaky in their appearance – the Guardian Mummy Vucubkai, stalking the ruins of
the subterranean city with two spitting cobras who have burrowed into his decayed
body; or the High Priest Zapatazap, who is merely a dreaming consciousness in
the bottom of his tomb. Both encounters and treasures are organic; they feel
like a part of the place. Treasure comes in the form of custom items like “Bronze
sculpture of a bat. The head twists off to reveal that it is
actually a bottle. The bottle is filled with an ochre liquid, a potion of
speed.”, or “6 Jade Eggs worth 500 gp each”. Some of the valuables
are also deftly concealed in the grave goods and other bric-a-brac strewn
around the city. Almost all that you encounter is “stock”, but they are made
memorable by the clever customisation.
’Archeologist’ sounds so much
more dignified than ‘Thief'
This is an
archaeologist’s adventure, with its puzzles and rewards alike focused on
historical and mythical objects. For example, a storehouse of several bronze
goblets resting on shelves, along with a large bronze punch bowl stained with
ancient blood tells you of the former denizens’ evil customs (the rewards are two
250 gp gold goblets hidden among their bronze companions). It can be a stone step
pyramid standing in the middle of the city’s necropolis, containing an
upside-down chamber you can descend into by smashing or extracting a marble
slab wedged into the pyramid top. Or it can be an island in a blood-red lake swarming
with tiny amphibious scorpions, containing a pedestal holding a valuable statuette
of Camazotz. How do you get through the lake or grab the loot without dying
like a dog? There are several good, open-ended environmental puzzles like this
for the explorers. And there are intelligent NPCs, from the primitive lizardmen
tribe in the upper caverns to magical beings who have been trapped or slumbering
down here all these years. Great modules encourage exploration, interaction,
and conflict, without putting the straightjacket on the party. And this is what
City of Bats delivers on – a great place to Do Stuff, from your best Indiana
Jones impression to making the local NPCs do your fighting for you.
Time to... raid some tombs!
There are some flaws which, while not serious, detract a bit from the module’s greatness. The first dungeon level’s linearity verges on the railroading, and the same problem crops up in the city, where the side shows can feel a bit like fairground rides. The final location is behind a "three keycards" style puzzle, a bit of a shame. This problem, I feel, comes from the contest limits; otherwise, the dungeon could have been maybe 25% larger, with more ways to do thing, and some empty connecting space in the iddle. This touch is missing from the scenario. There are also presentation issues: anyone who reads this blog knows that I generally view the issue with tolerance, but, well, City of Bats is a rough text which could have used something like a two-column format, or at least bullet points since it kinda blends together.
But as it stands, it is quite inspiring! It is not Tamoachan, it is a deserving homage to it, with plenty of imagination and adventure. When it comes to Tamoachan, this much praise should be enough. Recommended!
This publication credits its playtesters. Neat!
Rating: **** / *****