Hello, and welcome to part TWO 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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Over the last decade, old-school publications have increasingly focused on non-standard settings and off-the-wall ideas. Getting away from the bland sort of high fantasy was a motivation, “Weird fantasy”, once a distinguishing characteristic, is now just the baseline. When non-standard is the standard, the old standard becomes non-standard again. This is what we see in this adventure: an AD&D scenario that exemplifies how post-Gygaxian AD&D looked like for most of its existence. The crypt of a noble family, a feudalism-light setting, an evil artefact, and a slightly gothic “monster movie” feel that would not feel out of place in Ravenloft set the tone. Encounter design, monsters and magic are drawn from the AD&D palette. It is familiar, even comfortable. However, the real distinction lies not between strange and familiar, but well-made and poorly made. In fact, a lot of high-concept releases are really bad. Also, a lot of vanilla releases are really bad. We must look elsewhere.
The Carcass of Hope offers a local mini-environment arranged around a central mystery – not quite mini-sandbox, but more than a simple, straightforward “beginning to end” module. The downfall of a local noble family, a ruined village, and the large family crypt are supplemented with two mini-dungeons, and a sketched-out description of a village home base (although it feels more like a small town). There is a lot to the module: the central dungeon offers 46 keyed areas, and with the supplemental material, its potential grows further. It is also a scenario which can accommodate different plot hooks and player approaches – although the curse of the Mirthmane family and the enchanted mirror serving as the module’s centrepiece shall focus this somewhat.
The main adventure site, the crypt is arranged around two looping, symmetrical corridors branching off into crypt areas, secret rooms, and cave sections where nature and invading monsters (both scavengers and more organised types) have started to claim the undead-dominated crypts. There is a layer of bog-standard crypt exploration here, with sarcophagus/coffin stocking charts that are too much on the mundane side – “a dagger, bejewelled with rubies worth 250 gp”, “silver earrings worth 30 gp”, a magic sroll, that sort of thing. It is nothing to get excited about, but it does get more varied and flavourful. There is a consistent theme of the Mirthmanes’ lavish spending on the resting places of their hunting dogs, a touch nicely establishing the theme of rich feudal assholes. There are signs of family tragedies. The crypts of the notable family members have individual touches as well, never completely unexpected, but playing well with gothic clichés – a screaming ghost, a pressure plate trap, or a flooding room. These are not the most complicated setpiece encounters, but they should make the players to stop and think a little before proceeding with their course of action. Details of environmental degradation are woven into both descriptions and game challenges.
The encounter types offer good variety as well, with a particular emphasis on magical and mundane traps. This is a common way to spice up crypts, and here, they are generally well executed. The adventure makes good use of AD&D mainstays like continual darkness, magical alarms that can be disabled, and other ways of controlling or blocking access. Trap/puzzle combinations are good as well; for example, a statue holding a spear that turns out to be a detachable magic item, but one protected by a trap spewing poison gas from the statue’s mouth is good, classic AD&D that rewards the resourceful and observant, but punishes the foolhardy. Together with the combat encounters, the adventure is fairly tough for the intended level range, and more so if the family vampire gets unleashed.
Some of the puzzles are a bit too obscure. For example, a specific vault opens on presenting one of two specific signet rings (this is all right since it is a jackpot), and the main magical trap/alarm systems are operated with a family brooch (and sometimes a password), which are not really easily discovered unless via trial and error. Brute-forcing these protective systems is a way to do it, and perhaps more logical than finding easy clues that help the players figure it out, but there should have been a few more nudges in this area – even in a form of subtle environmental storytelling. Non-static encounters are not common, mostly owing to the crypt theme, but an undead NPC, creepy Old Uncle Arnaut, a bored crypt thing who is only a threat to grave robbers, is a real standout. The large centrepiece, the Cursed Penumbra mirror, more than lives up to its name, and it is a nasty piece of magic both to use and destroy – utterly deadly if mishandled, and an impressive conclusion if this is the target of the adventure.
The supplemental content is smaller-scale. Mausoleums in Mirthmane Cemetery are handled with random tables – this is fairly simple stuff. The Tower of Vuul is a monster hotel with a gibbering mouther as its central attraction. About as much as you would expect from a tower adventure, with a few better encounters. We also have our local Totally Not Chaotic Evil, We Swear cult and its underground lair. They sew their mouths shut, how could they be evil? This is a lot better, with good, imaginative and slightly sinister specials: “a fountain, its basin red-stained, and topped with a statue of a hooded figure. Its face is a gaping black hole.” If you figured out this is a portable hole, you deserve both this, and the scarab of insanity and bracers of defence AC 6 “made out of human flesh” you will find inside. Then we have a lizardman lair with a freaking ziggurat! Okay, it is very small, but it is a “whoa” moment in this very vanilla “monster movie” setting. The treasures the lizardmen are guarding, a golden catfish idol and a shield +1 they revere as a holy object, are distinctive and stick in the mind despite being throwaway lines. A few more touches – a non-standard vampire, humanoid bands, and a gang of harpies dwelling in the cemetery sinkhole add further minor touches, individually small, but a good source of complexity when added together.
The presentation is generally good, although it suffers from a weak introductory section, and some slapdash writing here and there that was probably the result of contest time constraints. It is not easy to understand what’s going on after a first read, and although things are made fairly clear after reading the main text carefully, this could be a lot stronger. However, the writing is good where it matters most: the actual encounter descriptions are effective, using bullet points where it makes sense, but not going overboard with them. The writing often manages to grab just the right phrase to set the stage for gameplay without becoming overwrought. It is not yet there, but a little more practice shall produce excellent results.
In summary, The Carcass of Hope is a slightly low-key, vanilla adventure whose strength lies in the effective use of standard AD&D elements. It is, however, at its best when it departs slightly from the tried and true, and offers some variation on the theme, and at its least impressive when it goes back to random coffin contents. Beyond the level of well-crafted individual encounters lie structure, and an understanding of constructing complex adventuring environments. This is how AD&D was being played in its heyday – no, it is how AD&D was being played well. There is room for improvement, but there is a clear path forward, too.
This publication credits its playtesters.
Rating: *** / *****