Wednesday 27 December 2023

[REVIEW] Shrine of the Demon Goddess

There Goes the Neighbourhood

Shrine of the Demon Goddess (2023)

by Jonathan Becker


Levels 7–9

Bored with weird ingredients and stamp-sized portions? Jaded with molecular gastronomy? The nightingale tongue pâté and the jellyfish confit no longer do anything? Is it all fated to be filled with ennui? If so, you might try wholesome home cooking. It may not be fancy, but it is based on the tried and true, and the wisdom of generations. Shrine of Demon Goddess is that sort of module. The final stage in the three-part Storming the Forbidden City series run on Cauldron Con (which would probably give it the C3 module code), it is now freely available on the author’s blog as a free download. Let’s be clear: this is the PDF conversion of a very simple Word file, the first two parts of which (the first two tournament rounds) do not even have a map. The text is a simple series of bullet point entries without art or any further layout. The text is not even justified. We did not come for the production values.

Without a map for the first two scenarios, To Rescue a Prince and The House of Horan (which are also more bare-bones), we will only focus on the third. Shrine of Demon Goddess is an add-on to TSR’s Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Much of the ruined city was never detailed in the module, so Jonathan Becker took one of the random city blocks, and turned it into a scenario. The scope of the adventure is about one or two sessions of play (if the players decide to explore the whole of it), featuring a three-level dungeon with a total of 27 keyed areas. Each level follows Dwellers’ Meso-American theme, but each is subtly different: the surface area has a weirdly shaped five-sided pyramid temple; the first underground level is catacomb exploration and tomb-robbing; and the third is a cave system with setpiece encounters in the titular shrine. The levels are interconnected, making for about an expedition each – we mostly focused on the second, while a different playtest group hit the third.

We now come back to the home cooking analogy. There is nothing here that causes a complete surprise, or tries to dazzle you with wild ideas (Ship of Fate has you covered there), it is just solid, competent material, the sort of thing a skilled DM creates in a few evenings for a weekend game session. It all hangs together, and there is a pleasing smoothness to it all. The encounters are built on D&D standards, employed and combined skilfully, and adapted to the module theme. You infiltrate a compound that seems deserted, but suspiciously so. You explore a gridlike catacomb system, trying to find the “special” rooms. A subterranean chamber has four statues depicting three-headed eagles, three in a sad state, one pristine (if you immediately go “I chuck a stone at the mimic”, you are a better player than us). A hard-to-access room is “dominated by an ancient well, intricately carved with eagles and serpents” (observe the emerging theme, as well as the Mexican flag homage), inhabited by a pack of water weirds, and blocking a passage with treasures. It is all familiar concepts, but constructed well. The Forbidden City theme is heavily exploited; elements of decaying and dangerous architecture, Meso-American weirdness, and the feel of National Geographic-approved funerary complexes are gamified.

On Grid

The skill of the design also crops up in the structure and smaller details. The treasure distribution is built on the “large, well-defended treasure caches” idea instead of a more even trickle with the occasional spike (which tends to be closer to my approach). You are moving through the environment to hit one of the scores, and there is not much small-scale stuff. When you win, it is a big one, like 10,000 platinum with extra gems/jewelry and a few high-quality magic items. Likewise, the monster encounters are not just random assignments plopped down in rooms, they are placed in situations where they represent a challenge. A yuan-ti jailer is weak on his own in single combat, but has the ability to sneak up on the party and cause mayhem. The water weirds are blocking treasure, and are vulnerable to the Cleric’s spell… unless he is the first to get dragged underwater (as it happened with us). A cavern filled with 92 snakes in all sizes and varieties and blocking your path presents a conundrum – do we go around silently and risk an attack? Nuke them and waste a fireball, or even alert the rest of the complex? Do something else? This is a module filled with interesting choices and strong opponents, even for a level 7–9 party.

Shrine of Demon Goddess looks unassuming on a first look, but then establishes a strong, functional baseline, which it sticks to. It is well made. One reason you aren’t paying good money for modules like this is that they are not for sale, and what you get instead is fare that invariably tends to be higher concept but lower quality (often considerably so). A bunch of releases you see in the wild have the production values and wahoo ideas, and all they lack is skill. This module is just skill. You will find it useful if you ever need something Meso-American – if only standard stuff was exactly as good. The rating is a high ***; the award-winning GMing added the extra * in play.

This module does not credit its playtesters, but I hereby witness having played and survived it. We took losses and carried away fabulous treasures, as is proper.

Rating: *** / *****

Thursday 21 December 2023

[REVIEW] Skalbak Sneer: The Stronghold of Snow

Skalbak Sneer
[REVIEW] Skalbak Sneer: The Stronghold of Snow (2023)

by J. Blasso-Gieseke

Published by 21st Centaury Games.

Levels 5–7

Hello, and welcome to part EIGHT 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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Tomb of Horrors is one of those modules which, before it was inevitably reduced to a safe geek in-joke, had its black legend, a reputation for pitiless cruelty and character destruction. Skalbak Sneer is Tomb of Horrors for combat-centric scenarios, billed “a tactical deathtrap dungeon”, and living up to every letter of that promise. This is an adventure that, if run correctly, will make a bitter almost-TPK feel like well-earned victory, and could be properly titled Death Frost Doom if that was not already taken by the LotFP classic.

Skalbak Sneer is what you get when a clan of snow dwarves, given centuries of time and work, has dedicated its efforts to building the perfect, unassailable fortress on a frosty mountain peak, with multiple lines of defences to draw in, then grind down and destroy potential invaders. They have been at it for a long time, they have developed battle plans and contingencies, and they expect visitors. If they can stick to their plans, the invaders will die, or be driven off with heavy losses. If the invaders can find ways to break the pattern, they might win (the dwarves’ limited reconnaissance abilities may be an edge, and leveraging pre-adventure information gathering another). The dwarves are limited in numbers with 24 defenders including some named NPCs, but they have resources, trained monsters, and an environment designed to their advantages. It uses psychological tricks to lead besiegers into a doom loop which allows them to be whittled down and dealt a killing blow without actually breaching the fortresses’ vulnerable interior. If the players follow this subtle railroad, it will lead them into an ignominious end. Similar designs have been attempted previously. The 2e supermodule Dragon Mountain did it with kobolds, although it relied on gimmicks and unfair rulings to make it work. Skalbak Sneer plays fair, it just plays to win, and does so effectively.

Welcome to My Death Machine!
The module is basically a very tough tactical assault scenario set in a hostile environment, with dug-in opposition and formidable defences, Operation Overdwarf-style. Even the approach, a great winding stairway spiralling around the snowstorm-buffeted mountain peak, is a hostile place of natural hazards, and it gets worse from there. It is a hard scenario on both sides of the table. It will be tough for any party attempting it, but it also places heavy demands on the GM, who must understand how the snow dwarves’ deathtrap operates on multiple layers, then keep it in motion during play while adapting to the dynamics of play. You have fortifications, defenders, trained monsters, traps and other moving parts on top of each other, connected like a well-greased death machine. There is a lot of depth here on a complex map, which requires careful study. The presentation is very helpful – multiple colour-coded maps and alternate battle plans for alerted/surprised defenders are provided along with effective prose – but it is a lot. I don’t think it could be run practically on anything except a VTT.

In addition to the tactical play, the module has its strong, effective aesthetic. Much of the writing is very functional, with OSE-style barks like Switchback: Designed to force the party past the barred doors and vicious claws of the tundra troll, yeti, and polar bear.” or Spear-bolt holes: Allows Lieutenant Snull and the three Defenders in Attack Position 1 13 to attack through the walls.” Interspersed with this are bits of effective prose which give you an idea of a formidable, hostile place born of dwarven paranoia and madness, feeling more like a prepared grave for a death-obsessed clan than a place filled with life. It is cool, in multiple ways. “An arch of white icicles hang down like the fangs of some abominable hibernal beast. Beyond them, a yawning black gullet of Cimmerian darkness.” Or: “On each of the six sections of wall, a headless body, human, elf, orc, bugbear, hobgoblin and gnoll, hangs from chains in the shape of a Y. Between upraised arms, red stumps gape with frozen gore.” Or even: “A warm pipe running around the mountainside melts the surrounding snow. The musical sound of dripping water fills the air.” It is strong with expressive detail, Nibelungen-style tragic grandeur, and invocations of dwarven doom.

The rewards, if you gain them, are kingly. It is not sparse change, but enormous silver statues of stern dwarven warlords worth 10,000 gp each (and weighing 2,500 lbs too). The armoury of captured weapons, visible through arrow slits just beyond the entrance, is not just a few weapon racks: it is a room filled with a 3’ deep layer of war bounty from every conceivable destroyed invader, a grim warning to break the spirit of the attackers. The cooks and brewmasters, as much the masters of their craft as the garrison, shall die defending their precious trade secrets with their last breath. There is no quarter asked or given, only wintery death.

Skalbak Sneer is obviously not for everyone. It is not for players who aren’t heavily into tactical combat, formidable challenges, and being tested to the limits of their ability. The gulf between this module and the OSE fare you typically find on DrivethruRPG could not be wider. It is also focused on one particular thing, so if you don’t have an interest in it, it will feel fairly obsessive and one-note. That said, in its own genre, it is unmatched and perfect: a Masterpiece of Death.

This module does not credit its playtesters. This is a shame, because it would have been particularly interesting here to learn how they had fared during their assault.

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