by Alex Zisch
Level 7 “with some fatalities”
Hello, and welcome to part SEVEN of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on itch.io) are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!
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High funhouse (as in “this guy must be high”) is kind of a lost art in adventure design. Puzzle-oriented, gameplay-heavy adventures with a strong emphasis on player skill and anachronistic comedic settings were the bread and butter of early D&D, but are rarely encountered in modern old-school, although they still exist in the forbidden pamphlets of the Scribes of Sparn, Unbalanced Dice Games, and sometimes Buddyscott Entertainment, Incorporated. Alchymystyk Hoosegow throws down the gauntlet and delivers high funhouse like no other.
What we get is a complex adventure site: an abandoned penitentiary converted into the workshop of an imprisoned alchemist, and left to the elements and various monsters. The first thing that strikes the reader is the dense, oddball writing: “The plateau backs up to the mountains where the talus contains an inky orifice. The mine opening has wagon-sized piles of clay soil spread nearby. A belching beehive-shaped smoke stack emerges from the ridge. (…) A species of Brobdignag proportions swarm the countryside. Mega-insects dart around chasing easy prey. They especially strike single file hikers, rock climbers and sleeping campers.” Or: “Clad in jade cloaks, two elves and two jackalweres (in human form) keep watch behind a parapet with a box of 500 arrows and 30 spears. A brass bell and cymbal can be gonged to raise the alarm. The jackalweres and foxwoman communicate in their alignment tongue with percussive signals. A trap door connects to the stair down” The verbiage is strange and laden with four-dollar words (adjusted for inflation), but it is essential: you get a strong idea of places, personalities and situations. This allows the author to cram an enormous amount of content into the contest page count, even allowing for homemade art and permanent marker cartography that will win no beauty contest, but… well, it will win no beauty contest, and let’s leave it at that.
While the focus is on the alchemist’s two-level “science bunker”, the surface area and three entry levels connected to the main deal are also described in broad strokes. The oddball energy is quickly unleashed. Giant cranes trudge through contaminated water, hunting for fish. A foxwoman rules a gaggle of charmed elven simps from her tower. Orc miners, generally peaceful, make deliveries for their mining operation. Margoyles collect rocks. There is just enough to kick the GM’s mind in a good direction, and let things develop. The entry levels are simplistic, sketched, but conceptually strong, each with a different dynamic. The foxwoman and her elves control the surface, and may offer a bargain to plunder the alchemist’s bunker. The orcs are working class guys just out to make a buck. A prison level is haunted by its jailers and inmates, and a furnace level is operated by salamanders creating expensive and bizarre ceramics in a fiery workshop inimical to human life. Each of these levels have their own logic and “game rules”, which the players must discover and exploit.
The main deal, though, is the alchemist lair, a 36+12-room puzzle dungeon that serves as a storehouse for crazy alchemy-themed puzzle rooms. Lab equipment, transformation and potion miscibility experiments are offered in dazzling variety, from the relatively simple to the supremely complex. They are not really interconnected for the most part except by theme; they are isolated setpiece rooms to be messed with and exploited for profit. There is a lot of raw, playful creativity exploiting magic items and monsters, involving a strong theme of trickery. Tiny gnomic creatures stored in the vats of a bio-lab grow into giant spriggans to ambush their rescuers, while a bonsai is a disguised hangman tree patiently waiting for its prey. The puzzles are multi-layered. For example, a giant “pool table” has mastodon ivory balls worth 25 gp each, and the holes contain various liquids from port wine to cyanide and a living mustard jelly… the real treasure being the pool stick (a quarterstaff +1 with a chalky tip).
Treasure is hidden carefully – potions disguised
as paint pots, opening a secret door to even better treasures if sorted into
the colours of the rainbow; a “floating” dunce cap that’s just sitting on top
of an invisible iron flask, and so on. There is generous mundane and
magical loot scattered around, if you can recognise and obtain it, but the best
stuff tends to be behind the really fiendish puzzles. The traps are also
hilariously deadly: consider an invisible inkwell on a writing desk, whose contents
develops into a cloudkill spell if carelessly knocked over (with enough
clues to give a hint to clever players and goad the foolhardy into making a
deadly mistake). Of course, it is all very silly, veering into doggerel verses,
groanworthy puns (“Meat the Beetles”, a book by Beer Brewbeck), and bizarre
monster-NPCs. The greatest treasures are locked away on the lowest level, the
alchemist’s treasury and vault – from pillars of pure gold to purple “Crown Royal”
bags doubling as bags of holding, filled with 15,000 gp worth of golden
dice. The difficulty curve also increases here, and both monsters and puzzles become
formidable for the level range.
Alchymystyk Hoosegow is a very peculiar module occupying a very specific niche. Players will love it if you enjoy puzzle-solving and foiling the GM’s clever tricks in a place governed by cartoon/adventure game logic, and probably have a bad time if they prefer their games serious and more-or-less plausible. It is pure gamergaming, and does that very well. Hoosegow, by the way, means a jailhouse. No, I have never heard this one either. Were drugs involved in the creation of this adventure? Well…
This module credits its playtesters properly.
Rating: **** / *****