Saturday, 27 May 2023

[REVIEW] Shrine of the Small God

Shrine of the Small God
Shrine of the Small God (2022)

by Ben Gibson


Levels 3–5

Hello, and welcome to part ONE of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on 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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Speaking of (RE)CONQUISTA, here is something for some good, wholesome conquistador adventuring in the colonies. Located in a Meso-American implied setting, Shrine of the Small God describes the underground shrine of Oleracea, the appropriately named petty god of cabbages. It is such a weird idea that you know from the start it will be either one of those high concept, low content adventures, or something actually skilful. It is actually skilful.

There is a lot to be said about the theme. Meso-American settings are already bizarre and utterly fantastic without adding or subtracting a single thing from what we know about them in real life. They are also hard to get into due to their innate strangeness and unsavoury elements. It is all a bit too much to relate to. However, they have been an excellent fodder for exotic expeditions, from Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan to No Artpunk I’s City of Bats. Shrine of the Small God also uses the idea of weird agricultural gods in an accessible way that highlights the strangeness, but places it successfully in a game of dangerous dungeon exploration. Multiple adventure hooks are available, and there is a variety of ways the party could come to the shrine, changing the experience in subtle ways.

The shrine has a strong sense of a place as an abandoned place of worship: deadly traps, magical enigmas, archaeological finds with a religious significance are found along with scavengers and robbers who have moved in to occupy the ruins. There is a consistent link between theme and game challenges. You can try your luck going for the valuables (many of them lying in plain sight – a great setup), figure out environmentally sensible puzzles, and deal with hazards which are logically placed. For example, a band of looters lurk near the entrance, cutting the ropes of characters descending into the ruins, and slaughtering their retainers while they are exploring. Elsewhere, a degraded dart trap is made even more dangerous, since it belches the poisonous dust of the crumbled projectiles from the firing holes. The remains or surviving members of previous expeditions are still found, along with the traps they have triggered. You can observe the patterns and – mostly – exploit them to enrich yourself with Oleracea’s bounty once discovered. You can play safe or push your luck (the module can get brutal for the suggested level if things go wrong). It is this good balance between plausibility (consistency) and fantasy which permeates the entire scenario.

You Conquer His Shrine,
He Conquers Your Heart
There is also a dense layer of the strange and utterly fantastic. Consider this description: “Hidden in perfect darkness, the hideous 5ft-tall body of the Avatar of Oleracea couches in slumber, a vaguely humanoid shape built of bolted cabbage, half-covered by pebbles, its ears and eyes covered by the stony hands of a rocky statue (a patient earth elemental who only cares about silencing the petty god).” The module iterates and builds on the central idea, and adds a good helping of Meso-American colour: scabrous guinea pigs, hunting puma, mummified priests (some talkative), golden idols, and a whole swathe of religious displays related to agriculture (including an enchanted hoe that functions as a magical battle axe!), astrological chambers, and more. The variety of challenges is really good.

The treasures are likewise imaginative and appropriate. How about a cursed copper bowl filled with gold nuggets that compels the thief to eat the nuggets, who shall die in 1d3 days when passing them? A bowl filled with golden instruments, raw gems, and aged incense worth 2250 gp total? A mutated shrine servitor wearing a gold belt, the only thing holding together the bloated body filled with a colony of green slime? A pair of golden masks, one with the thief’s melted face still stuck to it and the faceless remains nearby? There is a macabre element to it that fits the setting very well; ancient curses and the holy places of a really bizarre cult. Can you fight the Cabbage God? YES. Can you eat the Cabbage God? HELL YES!

There are some minor weaknesses to note. Some of the magical traps are arbitrary, and not telegraphed very well. Sometimes you can figure them out logically, and sometimes it is just messing with something that slaps you with a saving throw. On one occasion, a force field snaps in place at half a chamber’s height one round after entering, bisecting those who fail a save vs. wands. That’s a bit rough, for while the trap can be deactivated, there are no proportional warning signs, and there are two young pumas in the room to direct away the players’ attention. This can be fixed (for example, by having a whole lot of neatly bisected skeletons in the room). The shrine plan is also a bit too open – there are side-rooms, secret passages and inter-level connections, but ultimately, it doesn’t have enough in the way of obstacles that hinder character progress. Adding a few more passages and empty rooms would have been to the module’s benefit. Some of the treasure seems way too heavy for its value – “twenty 20lb golden plates worth 100 gp each” sound way off.

But those are small quibbles. Shrine of the Small God is imaginative, well-designed, and a place with a strong identity and sense of wonder. Your players, should they visit the place, will remember the glory of Oleracea. This is, undoubtedly, the most accomplished cabbage-themed adventure.

This publication credits its playtesters.

Rating: **** / *****

Sunday, 14 May 2023

[REVIEW] Vault of the Mad Baron

Vault of the Mad Baron
[REVIEW] Vault of the Mad Baron (2022)

by Christian Toft Madsen

Published by CTM Publishing

Levels 3–5

A hollow Earth with a populated interior is a great setting for adventure stories, and a good way to place even stranger things under your fantasy world. From Verne, Doyle and Obruchev to Burroughs and Lovecraft, as well as the highly underrated weirdo children’s science fantasy series, Sunken Worlds (a.k.a. Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea), it has been occupied by dinosaurs, UFOs, cavemen, nazis, punk pirates, dancing yellow pangolins, and intelligent lizardmen. This module is the second in a three-part series exploring the “Inner World”, two of which have been published so far. Journey to the Inside Out (itself an outstanding module I read but have so far failed to review) was a lost world setting with cavemen lorded over by a technologically advanced alien race, Vault of the Mad Baron is a bustling mediaeval city, and the forthcoming Labyrinth of the Dreaming Machine is going to be post-apocalyptic. The three modules are set in the same place, except separated by millennia (with time travel possibly linking them). For instance, the main dungeon of the first module is revisited here in a way that leaves most of the physical space intact, while showing how the place has been affected by the passage of time and repurposed by its new inhabitants.

Vault of the Mad Baron has a more conventional setting than Journey to the Inside Out, being set in Bergfried, a Late Mediaeval / Early Modern port city ruled by a hereditary monarchy founded by Northman conquerors, as well as a monotheistic church, the nobility, the guilds, and a rising criminal underclass. The pulp elements of Journey are still present, but fairly well hidden underneath the thick layers of a normal fantastic mediaeval society that reacts to these elements – a mysterious plague caused by messing with things that ought to have been left buried – in a fairly realistic way a fantastic mediaeval society would. Corruption, intrigue, the lust for power and revenge come to the fore as the plague spreads and things start falling apart, heading towards some sort of resolution between Bergfried’s competing factions.

This is the module’s basic premise: it presents a complex, interconnected sandbox setting in a large city with an eye towards realism, then throws curveballs when the characters start to dig deeper and events in the city escalate. It is sort of a low-magic and relatively low-level sort of D&D; light on monsters and treasure (perhaps a bit too low, especially on the latter), and high on realpolitik and competing factions. You could easily run it without the hollow earth premise if you wanted. The module notes it “contains topics which may be unpleasant to embrace in a fun pastime activity such as colonial aspects, abuse, murder, drug substances, poverty, diseases”, which is a bit like saying a candy jar contains candy, or a fantasy story features swords. Luckily, the module delivers on the good stuff in spades, without it being either preachy or puerile.

Vault of the Good Layout
The first impressive thing about the module is its scope, and its efficiency in delivering it. This is a 60-page book that would probably be a 240-page volume in lesser hands. “So what is in the sandbox?” “Everything.” “Everything?” “Everything.” The quantity of material crammed in is exemplary, containing everything you could conceivably need to run adventures in the city, with a gazetteer-style writeup, several random tables to facilitate play therein, detailed writeups of its six factions, their main NPCs and mapped headquarters, plus a large two-level dungeon system with a total of 80 keyed areas. “Good layout” has largely become a counterproductive obsession in this corner of the hobby, but that is not the case here. This is, in fact, good information design and good layout. A ton of information is presented, but it is being made accessible in the same breath. Page spreads are laid out to facilitate ease of use, with a plethora of random tables and charts next to the main text. The text is economic, and things are meticulously cross-referenced.

This efficiency is a necessity. As sandbox settings go, this one is heavily interconnected. The keywords are complexity, complexity, and more complexity. Everything relates to something, leads to something else, or is in conflict with a third thing. There are many moving parts, but the book does an admirable job of keeping them within the GM’s reach. There are occasional hiccups with table coding: is that Table BG, Table EG, or Table G1? It is not always completely straightforward to find where they are, and let me tell you, there are a lot of tables – it is hard to find a page spread without one, or five. However, this is the worst thing I can say about the module’s presentation. It is mostly just very solidly made.

Vault of the Shady Factions
The second thing that impresses about Vault of the Mad Baron is its handling of political intrigue. The rival factions are presented with their agendas, key objectives, things they want done in the city’s power struggles, and the people who run them. All of them crave power over Bergfried, but they do so in different ways – from the rising power of the Iron Guild and the doctrinal conservatism of the Church to the mystery cult of Dagon and the Baron’s grievously wronged wife who is plotting her revenge. This is not the railroady sort of political intrigue. Rather, you are handed the game board, you are handed the playing pieces with their capabilities and motivations, and let it play out in game as the players throw a wrench into the machinery. The city is a conglomerate of interlocking systems, and you can disrupt and destroy these systems through your actions.

In addition to the detailed static setting, a dynamic element is introduced through a simple but useful progression chart handling the advancement of NPC agendas – all based on how things get resolved through faction intrigue and player agency. Bergfried is a powder keg ready to blow, and there are serious opportunities for tipping the balance – with an element of moral dilemma. The city’s mighty and powerful all have something to hide, and are all eager not to have the skeletons in their closets disturbed. And disturb them you can: the headquarters of these organisations are written up as mini-dungeons (usually with about 30 locations each) ripe for stealthy and determined infiltrators. The cloak-and-dagger aspect is well done in both the physical and intangible sense, even if the room descriptions are mostly one- or two-line notes. As one-page dungeons go, they are the better sort.

Vault of the Vault

The Bergfried Dungeons form the module’s centrepiece. The two levels (three if we count the castle above them) are more detailed than the preceding city sites, using bullet point-based presentation with terse, matter-of-fact descriptions. The room entries are nothing to write home about – they serve their purpose, but you will not find entries that make you go “Wow, I should have thought about this one.” It is more of a low-key and realistic affair of prisons, workshops, guard rooms, cultist/bandit lairs and abandoned sections, without much in the way of “specials”. Realism takes precedence over whimsy. However, the dungeon system is ultimately saved by its interconnected nature, and even its size. This is an appropriately large place to explore, containing enough mysteries and dark secrets to uncover – all of which links back to things going on in the city. As a nice touch that will be mostly lost on those who do not have Journey to the Inside Out (an error you should redress when you can), the upper dungeon level is identical to the one in the previous module, and contains several callbacks to Bergfried’s prehistory. While the upper level is largely abandoned with the occasional guard outpost and NPC/monster lair, the challenge of the lower level involves four distinct areas, two of which are occupied and run in a systematic fashion by the Baron’s men, with guard schedules, checkpoints, and defensive systems. We also find the module’s weirdest things crammed in here, deep beneath the surface – and there is a large contrast indeed. It makes for a pleasant sense of discovery if the players come this far.

In summary, Vault of the Mad Baron is an exemplary adventure in both content and presentation. It lies slightly outside the standard D&D paradigm – it is a more-or-less realistic, low-magic Late Mediaeval setting with an underlying element of science fantasy, focused on a combination of cloak-and-dagger intrigue and dungeon infiltration instead of reckless adventuring. It lowballs its treasure values (something I am also guilty of, although not to this extent), so not that much character advancement will take place here, but that can be altered if you wish, and the NPCs largely play by the same rules. The tone is serious and tends towards the darker side; shades of grey and hard decisions all around. If you are looking for something after you are done with Hole in the Oak, this may not be the perfect sequel. You could say it is a bit like a LotFP adventure not written by edgy children. This is a module which inhabits its niche effortlessly: if you are interested in the premise, you will be happy with what you are getting. It is a large-scale, high-effort scenario that does “everything”, and does it very well. It comes with GM and player maps for VTT use. Oddly enough, there is even a trailer.

This module credits its playtesters, and that is, also, as it should be.

Rating: ***** / *****