by Ben Gibson
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 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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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.
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
You Conquer His Shrine,
He Conquers Your Heart
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: **** / *****