Saturday, March 9, 2024

Adventure Site Contest: Review #18 The Observatory




By: Ben Gibson of Coldlight Press

Ruleset: OSE

Recommended Levels: An adventure site of levels 2-4


The Gist: This adventure site has so many things I like about it.  It also has a few things that pull me out of the groove.  I'm reading through it and thinking "am I not getting something?" and keep looking for what makes these discordant bits (and they are really just bits) work, and I don't see the the location ever solve for X.  So I'm left wondering if its just me.  To be clear, so many of the details work well together that I would definitely run it, and I'm going to throw it on my map (changing what makes me scratch my head), so it's not a miss by any means.  Maybe this is one of those things where the author purposefully stops short of solving for X so that you can do it in your own way.  Which I'm more than happy to do, because this is a fun one.

So there's an old observatory on a hill.  People know there's a huge diamond inside (it makes the telescope work).  But they're terrified of the location and the huge diamond is just kind of sitting there.  A 2-headed ogre has taken up astronomy and bullied a band of goblins in coming with him here while he researches...something for some reason that's never hinted at.  But no one locally wants to come here, they're terrified of it, so if he's willing to go where others don't dare why would he need the goblins?  Food appropriation?  It seems like a lot of goblins to cover that.

Why are the people terrified of the location?  Well, there's this cool bit about nightsky traps that paralyze you if you look at one.  After a few rounds your eyes go starry black and you become obsessed with astronomy.  But their origin isn't explained; the text shows the goblins who have this condition able to make these traps - somehow.  Maybe if they paint a surface black and stare at it, the effect gets transferred from their own fucked up eyes.  IDK.  So if these traps were here all along that would make sense why no one wants to come here to get a giant diamond, if they're normal humans or low-level adventurers.  It doesn't explain why a MU, or even a cleric, with a handful more levels would stay away during the period that the observatory rotted away though.  Big glowing diamonds must have some lab value.  But back to the trap: I keep looking for some few words that explains patient zero so that I can extrapolate the trap into something apart from this place and these monsters and get my arms around it.  But apart from a possible past origin indirectly hinted at by black masks found in a secret closet that offer protection at the cost of reduced light to your eyes - which you would think daylight averse goblins would accidentally copy with their own cloth - nothing's there.

But let's talk about the location because it's marvelously put together.  There's so many little details that don't do anything directly, but by being there indirectly give players options.  The fence is broken down in a few spots by fallen trees, allowing some cover and camouflage to come up and observe to get an idea of the goblin's patterns.  The cattle that the goblins have rustled are primed to stampede.  The goblins are operating off their cycadean rhythm, in daytime, so their morale sucks and the DM is given conditions for what they do if it breaks.  Some of the hidden doors in and around the place haven't been found by the goblins, so you know to describe these spots a little differently and make attacks coming from these axes perhaps even more demoralizing to goblins already on the edge.

Little stuff like this is what keeps players interested before combat starts and they don't take a lot of space to sprinkle all over.  Ben does a really good job with this.  

The place feels like an observatory.  It has the right rooms, and the secondary rooms have a good mix of potential energy with fights, environmental hazards, and decent valuables.  The noise in the main goblin barracks means its easy to sneak up.  There are goblins tasked with milking little scorpions for venom in one room, and their blades are poisoned.  That's a nice little curveball the players likely won't see coming, but will make sense soon after the fight is over.  Present situations that make your players go "huh?" while making the "oh, right" happen in reasonable proximity.  The little temporary mysteries have value in the game when and because they're solved, which feels like a minor win gained along the way.

Presuming the players don't freak everyone out and get them prepping for a last stand, they can encounter the 2-headed ogre doing a Good Will Hunting bit on the chalkboards in the study.  One head is starry eyed and speaks in riddles while the other is normal and focused on the academics.  The DM should probably prepare some riddles to be ready, and also figure out what the hell he's here for, in case the players are into the talky-talky.  It has all the trimmings of a fun encounter.

In another encounter, the players find a starry eyed sea lion swimming in the cistern pool - which, if the water is still, is itself another nightsky trap with the effect on the water surface.  This broke all type established for the effect in the rest of the module, which is when I stopped trying to understand it and presumed it was just there to be cool, and something to deal with.  But the encounter is a fun set-up, granting it will raise a lot of questions if the DM doesn't think to place it within a reasonable (very short) distance of an ocean.  The module doesn't indicate this should be a consideration before this detail would need to fit; there's nothing otherwise on location to explain getting a sea lion far inland

There was one other minor location that I didn't have a problem with in structure, but the necessary rolling seemed excessive.  You have 3 rooms scholars used, three beds and lockboxes per room. So nine lockboxes.  Each lockbox has a 6% chance of having a small treasure and an astrology sign name (more below) .  Players are going to check the lockboxes.  Even if the boxes weren't locked, 9x6% chance means ~60% chance of all those rolls getting nothing at all.  It's just too small a chance.  Then put another hurdle in front of each 6% roll where a lock picking roll for a low level OSE thief has to succeed for that 6% chance to occur.  It just seems like a lot of rolling - table time overhead and play momentum severing for a miniscule chance of getting much.  I'd probably switch for a d20 roll where results of 10-20 meant nothing at all, while 1-9 was that many boxes having stuff (and drop the locks).  After all, if clues are being put in the boxes it doesn't do much good if none are found.

Which segways into the main area, the telescope apparatus spanning all three levels of the observatory.  There's a lot to like in this construction.  I really liked the way the goblins had practiced with the lens, out of boredom, and learned it could fry stuff like a kid with a magnifying glass does.  The room has little scorch marks, and they can train that "weapon" on PCs for pretty good damage if it goes cumulative rounds on target.  This could make a final stand a tough, tough fight.  One sentence that could set up further play is giving something the telescope could help a player discover if they got it operating and spent some time here.  Because this is a great place for a MU to consider renovating for a stronghold.

But one of the parts I didn't understand is also at the telescope, and that's how the astrology astrology puzzle is presented.  Specifically because I thought room 5 had all the pieces to solve it:

  • You have twelve glyphed alcoves.  
  • The glyphs aren't magic - they aren't glyphs of warding (?).  
  • So if they're non-magical glyphs, aren't they glyphs of astrological symbols?  

That was my presumption on reading room 5.  Otherwise I have no idea what these glyphs are of.  But then I get to the bottom level of the telescope and there's the zodiac procession again in room 11, presented as if new info, saying this is a hint for room 5.  Isn't it the same information presented a 2nd time?  Or are the glyphs in room 5 not in sequence order around the room?  I felt like there might a missing detail in room 5 that would scramble the PCs understanding that the glyphs showed the zodiac, and without that bit I would present room 5 with too much info. Since it's the central puzzle/feature of the location, I'd want to thoroughly understand it.

The other part about the telescope that I thought felt off was the value of the diamond.  If this is a massive glowing diamond shouldn't it be worth more than 10,000 gp?  A diamond the size of my thumb joint is worth 5,000 gp, at least in AD&D.  Are the two games that far apart in gem values?  Something for an AD&D DM to consider if so, because players aren't going to believe a huge glowing diamond is only 2X. 

All in all, this location gets so much right that answering these questions for yourself isn't going to keep you away.  It's a great location even if I have a fair amount of questions.  

Monster Roster: 14 goblins, a 2-headed ogre, bat swarms, stampeding cattle, at least one scorpion, a sea lion.

Treasure: A good mix of valuables, the potential haul is ~17,000 gp.  ~13,000 of that however is in a bulky/heavy statue, and the telescope diamond - which likely requires some time and further adventuring to get all the stuff necessary to free the diamond.  So most of that couldn't be assumed to be taken just from the initial exploration and routing the monsters.  For magical treasure there's only a shield +1 (with a magical nightsky trap on it).  So I'd probably give the ogre some magic stuff or hide a couple more minor pieces around the place, in my campaign.  And also remove the feces coating some pieces of it.

Do I think this will work: Yes, but the DM will need to decide some details I expect players to inquire about that the text doesn't provide answers to.

Do I like it: Yes, it's a fun location

Nitpicks:  

  1. Map text and numbers facing different directions makes me hit the rotate button
  2. There's a lot of feces here.  
  3. The weight of the stone cistern covering seems light for its size
  4. Are the room numbers for the cargo elevator right?  It from 10 to 5 to...6?  Is it supposed to be 9?
  5. A platinum-coated mirror filled with fish?  Do you mean an aquarium with platinum coated sides?

Friday, March 8, 2024

Adventure Site Contest: Review #17 The Tower of the Elephant




By: J. Blasso-Gieseke of 21st Centaury Games

Ruleset: OSE

Recommended Levels: 4-6 players levels 6-8


The Gist: This is a hard one to review.  I don't really like it.  It didn't do anything wrong.  I don't think it will play well.  I don't think it will play poorly.  The writing when considered as technical writing is well-done.  It's laid out really nicely.  It's OSE personified.

You get hooks and rumors; the hooks play off the inversions.  The rumors give mostly true details about the tower and its owner.

If you know the story and rely on it, you will lose because everything in the tower is inverted.  If you figure out right away that everything in the tower is inverted you can go back to relying on the story.

You get a map that pretty much faithfully recreates the gist of the story.  Doing so doesn't elevate the product, it makes the story smaller.  You have the two courtyards with guards as described.  Once you get into the tower you have three chambers above the ground floor guardhouse/kitchen.  So essentially after dealing with the guards either through bypassing them or killing them, it's three structurally similar encounters (one foe, one element of sensory misdirection, one story inversion).  There's just not much to do, really.  It's basically a 5-room dungeon.

If you've read the story then writing a bunch of shit for this is a waste of time.  If you haven't read the story then all you really need to know is it's a tightly written 5-room dungeon without much to do except march from encounter to encounter.  (Presumably silently somehow, as the adventure has no real adjustments given if the PCs just leeroy jenkins-butcher their way up or down while making a lot of noise.)  But the three main encounters could each be interesting as presented, if no alarm were in motion.

Monster Roster: 40 3HD guards, 6 lions, a normal slave, 14th level cleric, a Malphyr (seems demon-ish), and a human polymorphed into a giant spider.

Treasure: Unlike the story you can get the heart, which is a cool 250K gp value gem.  Interesting outcomes could result, as it will be hard to sell.  You also might get a lesser amount for the gem (50K gp) depending upon what hook is used, and/or 50K gp for a kidnapped royal.  

Four carpets are mentioned worth 10K each, along with 7 huge golden goblets (10K each).  Other items such as incense are likely valuable but no specific values are given.  I doubt any group is going to get all of this, however - it's going to be a certain subset or the other.  But monetary riches are certainly ample.  

The 14th level cleric has a staff of swarming locusts.

Do I think this will work: Mechanically yes.  Player reaction will depend on their feelings about the IP and how its portrayed, as well as the repetitive structural aspects.  They have an entire party against the story antagonists instead of one Conan, granting that might still be less powerful than one Conan.

Do I like it: It would be far better to make a larger tower adventure that had stuff to do, and somehow worked in a recognizable homage, than this near-copy.  I can however appreciate that the author was very faithful to the gist of TotE and has more-than-competent technical writing chops.  I won't run this, however.

Nitpicks:  None not already discussed.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Adventure Site Contest: Review #16 The Barrow Shrine of Corruption


To the dame's question...I'll never tell. But might I have found the author's twitter alt (?)




By: Submitted anonymously (?)

Ruleset: B/X

Recommended Levels: "cautious low-level characters"


The Gist: A nice spider lair in the woods, useful and appropriate for any dark forest hex.  

The author is either down bad and working through it, or perhaps lost a bet and had to write their submission and draw the map using the illustrations of reproductive systems found in textbooks as inspiration.  But for all that, the encounter works and is something I would hold up as what you want to have in your back pocket for (in AD&D) a giant spider's lair.

It starts off with the giant mons...err, mound.  A dead raven is nailed to a door at the southern (?) edge.  The entire setup is practically begging the party to visit its magical realm, and I'm guessing t'aint a party who will refuse.  The interior description does a good job of conveying a location of some antiquity, with tree roots reaching through the earth from above to hang down over the party's field of vision.  Luckily, the monolith at the northern-most point has two big glowing eyes (gems) - they won't miss it.  It's also unfortunately one part of a double trap, like adulthood is for death, and taxes.  Since it's surrounded by the hard bits of former corpses of many types no one can say the monolith trap is of the FU type.

Trap #1 is a good-sized party of gnolls coming up from two trapdoors along opposite sides of the chamber, to cut off the party and hopefully divide them by forcing them into the trigger point for trap #1 - which is another trap door at the base of the monolith covering a deep chute.

Anyone dropping into the chute will be saved by a mass of webbing shortly before they would otherwise land in a spiked pit.  Saved, but not really, as a mated pair of giant black widow spiders live in a cave just above, so unfortunates are "saved" from the fire by landing in the frying pan.  There's not going to be a lot of time to extract anyone who's stuck from the web, and since they can't really see the spikes there's always a chance someone might toss down a torch while dealing with the gnolls above.  This will burn the webs, deposit the unfortunate in the spikes, and leave them wounded while still in danger from the spiders between them and the top.

It's really a nicely thought-out trap.  The glowing "eyes" monolith doesn't lead one's mind to thoughts of spiders, and dealing with the gnolls simultaneously impairs more deliberate rescue attempts.

Anyway, only the larger female is immediately aggressive towards chute-droppers.  If she's somehow dealt with and the cave she emerged from is explored, the smaller male hides as best he can in the dark back of the cave trying to take anyone entering by surprise.

There's good interactivity here - a cocooned bandit begs for his life, promising to lead rescuers to its lair if saved.  If the party hightails it and comes back later with spider-specific prep to clean out the area, he's a drained husk (if any spiders survive first contact).   Of course the party may also still need to deal with the gnolls, requiring accessing their hidey-hole from either above or below using the trap doors in the main chamber or coming upward from the spider cave.  Vertical connections are provided either way, and a nice side-view makes the map structure clear if less of a titter.  

None of the other rooms are especially noteworthy beyond describing the sorts of living quarters rooms necessary to support humanoid life.  The gnoll's treasure is protected by a poison trap, and given the level suggested it's likely there's only so many poison-clearing spells to go around.  I can almost hear the swearing if it's been a bad day for poison save rolls.

Monster Roster: Spiders and golls.  Short and sweet.

Treasure: There's no magic, but the trapped chest with 2,000 gp will be hard to miss.  Probably also the glowing eyes-which-are-gems can be picked up - I don't think anyone's failed to grab eye-gems since the PHB came out in '78.  They're big pieces of amber, worth another 1,000 for both, and have the neat wrinkle that prehistoric scorpions were trapped inside when the amber was made.  If I was in the party I'd probably try to tuck those away for higher levels when maybe magic can do something to make those scorps useful (they'd be very rare at least - who knows what their stats are). Rounding out the loot are six occult tablets of the demon-god the monolith is dedicated to that could bring in another 1,200, for a total haul of up to 4,200 gp.  

While this aspect isn't really played up in the adventure, a DM could run with this demon having a portfolio of corruption/disease and work it into further campaign activity if desired, as a bread crumb trail to another unholy site farther away is left by the author.

Do I think this will work:  Yes, this will be a memorable lair/hex.  All the elements help each other and put pressure on the players.

Do I like it: Yeah, I think this is a really nice entry, even if it was only typed with one hand.  Good job.

Nitpicks:  None.

Adventure Site Contest: Review #15 St. Durham’s Home for Wayward Youths


 St. Durham’s Home for Wayward Youths

By: Trent Smith

Ruleset: AD&D

Recommended Levels: N/A, but nothing here will be a challenge to PCs over early mid-levels (around 4th) presuming typical party numbers of 6-8


The Gist: In the countryside is a reformatory facility for evil humanoid women and children built using platonic gygaxian naturalism.  It's a proper "location" in that it doesn't presume why you'd be interacting with it or attempt to manufacture a reason.  The nature of all the conflicting aims easily breeds organic reasons to interact with it, so as-written it's one of those "static" elements discussed in CAG episode #7 that a DM could stick on a map and let it putter along largely undisturbed until some natural development in the campaign world either flipped it to a dynamic element, or, brought about PC involvement almost certain to change the status quo.  One thread that could flip the location to dynamic at any time is if the orc tribe the adult females came from learned they were still alive and were in the program - they'd attempt to storm the fortifications and retrieve them.

But as written it is a tight, functional, working location that isn't "adventuring" per se, in the sense that an alchemist's shop in town isn't adventuring, or a druid's grove isn't adventuring - there's no lit fuse.  And this is no mark against it by any means.

Most of the potential comes from conflicting aims, both secret and unspoken.  Most of the reformees aren't steadily progressing towards reformation, except perhaps for one demographic (orc females).  The guards don't expect any of this to work, and have a typical prison guard mentality of being there to prevent uprisings and ensure the situation is under control and the humans stay safe (the humanoids aren't their charges though, per se).  The head cleric believes in the mission, intending to effect changes to the humanoids' natures through instilling what we could call the puritan work ethic and rigid discipline - both growth of the personal sort, and correction of the punitive sort (up to and including hanging for physical assaults).  His main assistant is double-faced, playing good cop to his bad cop but secretly worst cop in that she sells "graduates" into slavery instead of attempting to integrate them - which, being lawfully-minded, has been meticulously tracked in a secret ledger that could blow the situation wide open if it became known beyond herself.

The reformees are largely faceless excepting one goblin female who's managing to keep secret being a shaman dedicated to the devil Moloch.

The entire place is a mess of tangled grey and black colors.  Don't come looking for any archetypical do-gooders here.

While the structures aren't fantastic in any way - they're exactly what you'd expect a religious reformatory in our world to look and feel like, with kitchens, workrooms, dormitories, chapels, etc., the building does hold its secrets just as the inhabitants do.  The headman has a secret passage connecting the upper and lower levels opened by pulling on a book with a hindsight-obvious title; the goblin shaman has finagled a secret door in the punishment cells (guessing she's been thrown in there many times) to an excavated cave/sacred space with an incomplete jailbreak tunnel leading off.  The text notes the DM can expand this into a system of caverns if desired, although if doing so the DM should have a motive for the shaman to still be here instead of escaping (several come to mind, the main thing is the DM is prepared to answer this question if needed.)

The exterior is walled and fortified, with corner towers keeping watch over the whole; the guards keep shifts to maintain a 24/7 watch, and reinforcement patterns are noted if trouble breaks out.  It's built to withstand a siege from either evil humanoids or nervous humans.  All normal outbuildings necessary for the location to function are present and described.

Daily schedules for all the mundane inhabitants is provided; a DM will be able to run this like a clock should something create a stir.

Monster Roster: clerics of 6th and 3rd level with four 1st level acolytes; one 3rd level fighter, three 1st level fighters, and 24 0-level fighters with typical arms/armor; 45 humanoid women and children of mixed types and one female goblin shaman of 4th level ability; a poisonous snake.

Treasure: The valuables are worth about 6,800 gp, max, although some of it will pose difficulties getting that in coin value as it's a mix of location-appropriate items such as altar pieces that can be connected back to the home, a bank draft letter where our trafficker deposits her ill-gotten gains, or incense that presumably has a more limited market of buyers.  This is a nice touch reflecting advice in the DMG about making treasure a mix along spectrums of convenience and portability.

Magical treasure includes a scroll of protection from normal missiles, potions of extra healing and sweet water (also known as the potion of player sadness).  The leveled clerics have plate mail +2 and quarterstaff +3, ring of mammal control, +2 scale armor, and a wand of flame extinguishing.  The guard captain has +1 chain mail and broad sword.  

Given that magic mostly belongs to the humans in charge, many interaction scenarios would have a low likelihood of taking possession of these.  So if a DM wants to up the treasure take, using the suggestion of putting extra caverns off the escape tunnel with a challenging monster (and treasure) of some sort could be a solution. 

Do I think this will work: The scenario itself, as crafted?  Yes, it will work without a doubt.  

In an out-of-campaign sense, will this work for all play groups?  No, simply because it chooses to present a subject that's been a heated debate in the hobby for decades (what to do with non-combatant evil humanoids).  I don't think anyone is obligated to shy away from interacting with that subject, and I don't think Trent would be offended by someone choosing not to use it on those grounds.  He addresses the subject with a tremendously even hand, here: it's controversial in human society, it's unwelcome in humanoid society, it's not very effective, and everyone involved is either dubious of the worth of it, an uptight dick, or shamelessly abusing the point of it for personal gain.

But it does interject that entire debate into the campaign world, and there's no way to really keep it there if the subject is considered contentious to those playing the game at the table.  In a best case scenario no one cares and it's just an interesting thing to consider.  The DM should judge whether this is the case however.  It could also generate an argument among players very easily.

Do I like it: Yeah, I like it as a well-done expression of the game.  I personally don't have reformable humanoids in my campaign world, so usability for me is limited without reworking it (very possible to do, and I might).  But I can like something I wouldn't make or use as-is myself.

Nitpicks: None, it's as tight as a drum.

Adventure Site Contest: Review #14 The Red Tower




By: Krist√≥f Morandini

Ruleset: Swords and Wizardry

Recommended Levels: Suggested for 5th level players


The Gist: If you roll on the 1E DMG random encounter tables often enough, you'll pop a random encounter with a fortress, and eventually one of those will have a MU owner.  Something like this would be perfect to stash away for when that happens...if any of the idea stems inside were completed.  As it is, this work represents the type which is just incomplete enough that the DM likely saves little time making it into something ready to play, and then most people would rather spend the marginal extra time to just have something of their own make.

As it stands, you get a tower that's just survived a small assault.  The owner is missing, and his steward has decided this is likely permanent (he wasn't involved and doesn't know why), resulting in a de facto ownership transfer.  And...that's pretty much it.  To be sure you also get a pretty standard small wizard's tower in terms of layout, room types, and such, but there's nothing here to do unless you write it.

Examples of ideas or details that just stop before giving you something you can game with:

  • The tower map provides no distance scale
  • Also on the map - black blobs that aren't discussed.  From the text it can be inferred the one in the ground floor shed/weapons room is the debris detailed there, but the massive one in the upper floor gets zero treatment in the text.
  • No map is given for the basement
  • The sorcerer's disappearance
  • the empty camp of the besiegers, and what their motivation was
  • What the magical gate-field is created out of - it's not unheard of for 5th level characters to have access to magic items which could potentially nullify different types of magic, but it's just a "magic field" so if they try the DM must decide how to ref that.
  • Two secret tunnels are described, one leading into the tower from a well 200 feet away, and the other connecting the tower with a river 600 feet away - so the DM is going to need a map of the locale around the tower unless handwaiving all of this is very vague theater of the mind fashion.  Maps didn't count against the page limit, so there's no reason one couldn't have been provided.
  • A cleric is an odd steward choice, it seems like a sentence or two would be needed to address what's a very likely questioning from the players for why, especially given the absence of the sorcerer.  
  • "the sorceror's notes" are bolded in the lab entry, but nothing about what is in those notes is given.  

Monster Roster: 5th level cleric steward and a 1st level human fighter valet, a dragon newt.  More hinted at in the area around but not detailed or listed as such.

Treasure: About 1,600 gold worth of sellable treasure, a human control ring, potions of frozen concoction (S&W-specific item), growth and clairaudience.  The ring is very powerful but it's still squarely on the meagre side. I'm a bit more lenient with sites such as this because the DMG makes clear that even if a lair encounter is rolled, no treasure might be found.  So it's as common in my experience to get meagre treasure or nothing when popping a lair encounter as it is to get a nice haul, simply because the treasure type rolls all miss.

If you were going to use this in a non-random fashion, as a placed encounter location, then I'd say you really should rework the treasure (which may naturally occur as part of finishing off all of the incomplete parts).

Do I think this will work: No, what is finished and ready to use here is very mundane.  It doesn't meet the threshold for "working" as nearly anyone would interpret that phrase in a D&D context.  It could be a serviceable random encounter if it were completed and fleshed out.

Do I like it: It's too incomplete to say.  I don't like it in the form it's in.

Nitpicks:  

1) Most of what would go here was discussed above, but the passage from the well is starts under the water level, but the water level is only 2 feet deep (?).  Could be a typo as it's just a strange well and strange passage if intended.

2) I'm not sure if this is a language thing, but the room listed as a "shed" is described as a bedroom - which doesn't make any sense to the typical english usage of the word "shed".

Adventure Site Contest: Review #13 The Nalfeshnee's Monastery




By: Archives of MU

Ruleset: AD&D

Recommended Levels: Hopefully appropriate for levels 8-10


The Gist: Much fun was had writing this entry, and much fun was had while reading it.  It is not really a playable entry, however, as it finishes with a dollop of LOTFP negadungeon .  It also breaks the 4th wall a lot - ironic/sardonic commentary on culture/politics is layered on thick, the minotaurs have a GWAR poster on their cave wall, etc.  Some people will love that, others not.  I don't pass judgement on the style-as-style, but I'd note that I've yet to see someone turn out a string of playable material employing it, and creating strings upon strings of creative material is foundational to running a campaign. The natural limits of meming as a creative school may end at the gates of functional gaming scenarios.  It often seems as though making a style statement is priority #1A, the intent is to make playable material is #1B, and at some point in the process meeting both priorities became increasingly difficult until the author said "fuck it" and leaned hard into #1A to finish the project.  Does this creative school pose a similar mirage to gaming applications as Hickman's novel writing did in the 80s, where gaming had to bend to it to work instead of the other way around? I don't know; I think it would be cool to see that product that still would work if the style were stripped out - which is the test, how are the bones?  I just haven't seen it yet.

I'm sure there are other scene references too inside baseball for me to grok.  I did a google search for horned werewolf and the only thing that seemed relevant was a bit about some cryptid claimed to be seen near Gloucester.   At least I caught the Doom bits.  

As mentioned, playability is high the earlier in the text encounters and locations occur.  The keep is laid out intelligently, it feels like the author wants that to be considered authentic to someone who would care.  The height upon which it rests would normally pair very well with a Type IV demon able to telekinese 500 lbs and make combat terrifying to consider - I was anticipating this until discovering the demon was in the cellars.  If proceeding through the gatehouse with its murder holes and arrow slits, by hook or by crook, an alien garden stands before you in the central yard.  In it are more than a dozen "humans" (the aforementioned horned werewolves) cavorting; the fruit of the garden might help chaotic beings but others can expect only pain.  In the corner is a captured prize - the jeweled skull of a pope, protected by some undead (released by a trap that pisses green slime on those nearby).  This is all very good.

Other minor areas nearer to the gatehouse also make thematic sense with a monastery and feel playable as concepts.  You get the larder/cook, some anchorites, etc.  One issue with higher level characters is the cramped size of the location - area of effects often increase with levels, and many of these encounter locations are tiny in size with many inhabitants (example: 30 anchorites in 450 sq feet of space that includes bunk beds and trunks for each of them).  But that might just be chalked up to not seeing enough of these ideas play out at the table.  

The only real issue I have in the early going is the name of a demon is given away to anyone with the ability to read Demonic script.  For higher levels, some means to decipher this can be almost presumed.  Learning the name of any lower-planar monster is a massive deal, just throwing it up on a statue breaks most game worlds at all concerned with that type of coherence.  I suppose non-goofing players might presume it's fake, but at any point if they find out it's real - and they must employ it expecting it to be real to have a snowball's chance in hell at the end - either the adventure or the game world it's ran in must break.

Another similar point is the chaotic monks; it seems to exist only to be incongruent.  There's so many good underused CE monsters...

From here, the bigger rooms get increasingly memed.  The minotaurs using overbearing on the high bridge is great; their lair felt underwhelming (apart from the GWAR poster).  The vampires are yuppies plotting to urbanize your favorite town.  The large chapel has the cool stained glass floor with the eight-pointed star glazed in along with scenes from the Abyss, but once that visual is ingested there's nothing to do there except descend to your Raggi-fied demise.  

At the bottom are your doom-swords and the sound of hundreds of demons shrieking through the stone walls.  Grab the swords, the doors open, and 665 manes pour out.  The Type IV demon makes 666.  I get it, I get it.  But this is what I mean by it's just a meme written in adventure form.  It's very funny when nothing's at stake.  Are we going for priority #1A or #1B?  

To be fair to the author, he puts right up front that this isn't playtested so the odds of someone grabbing this and expecting #1A aren't high.  I wasn't.  But you still always hope to be surprised, and when there's fun stuff there you really hope to be surprised.

Monster Roster: The monster roster is varied, although not many challenging foes for the level range: leucrotta, bugbears, ghouls, a wight, chaotic monks, vampires, minotaurs, and an ogre magi. 

Then the uncertain variants: horned werewolves, human anchorites (0-level?), animated suits of armor.

Treasure: It's really light for the risk. A few thousand GP of monetary treasure, some +1 suits of armor, a potion of healing, and the aforementioned doom-swords - which are only +1, although granting an extra attack roll if you hit.  But there's nothing here that a 10th level character would use after the adventure was over in preference to their likely already-better gear they came in with.

Do I think this will work: No.  

Do I like it: I want to - there's a ton of great ideas and themes in here when memes are stripped away, even if the bones on the layer beneath that don't work in game-as-game form.  But I get memes and jokes on social media; I don't really want them in game form.

Nitpicks:  

1) bugbears or skeletons in the gatehouse?

2) the beginning says you need to have your Monster Manual to use the product, but the tweaked monsters or other combatants often don't have either stats or a reference there.  Are horned werewolves just werewolves?  Does animated armor match to a monster there (no stats are provided)? Etc.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Adventure Site Contest: Review #12 Lost Vault of Kadish


Lost Vault of Kadish


The patrician choice to not reflexively loopy-doopy



By: Jonathan Becker

Ruleset: AD&D

Recommended Levels: 5-7 characters of 3rd to 5th level


The Gist: Our second adventure location interacting with a desert oasis, and a very fine adventure location it is.  Mr. Becker knows his business and efficiently turns out a tomb location that works by itself and reaches out beyond its initial exploration to hinder and/or harm PCs for the temerity of looting it (presuming this in fact happens).

You know what I like most about this, among the many fine room ideas and no-nonsense writing?  Departing from the checklist mentality that so many have when making pieces for play.  There is no loopy-doopying to be seen in this tomb.  There's almost a functional loopy, but it's incomplete, requires such effort to make it functional that doing so represents a net loss (of time if nothing else), and if completed destroys something beautiful, forever.  Jonathan may not have intended to send a message with this; it might be entirely coincidental; but when mapping a location has reached a point where people would try and force multiple loops on a cathedral floorplan just because every blog in the world seems reflexively check whether loops are present on maps, it's a subtle fuck-you to mindless box ticking. 

Linearity has drawbacks in dungeons.  However, everything is not a dungeon.

Another thing I like about Lost Vault of Kadish is that it can and reasonably might remain lost.  There is no hook, no way to drag players to the spot, it's entirely possible they might be driven off by hostile centaurs before figuring out there's something to find, or, never stumble over the transition point.  (Speaking of the centaurs, having them wear horse skull helmets is low-key dark.)

It's ok in a persistent world if some things are so subtle they're usually missed.  I guarantee you that if the players were to stumble on this long after beginning play in a DMs world - perhaps only on their 4th or 5th visit to this oasis - the very real sense of discovery felt by the players would be a cool moment.  "What?  Was this here the whole time?  How did we miss it?"  The interest felt by flesh and blood people sitting around a table just went up a hundred fold, for this little tomb.  Players should feel how willing you are to let secrets remain buried, in an amused detachment.  

But let's say that the party isn't driven off, they do wander around in the general direction a statue is pointing a spear towards: what happens?  They fall down a sinkhole into a cavern with  a door carved into one side.  They likely have to deal with some scorpions, possibly some blood hawks.  So we open with a little rough and tumble to make sure everyone's engaged.  Then come the series of rooms, which feels just like a desert tomb should.

From there we get the almost-loop; a crevice opened by the shifting earth, and time, that seems to go nowhere really.  We're probably going to eat up some time with looking for doors here, and there are some doors to find.  But that time.  Now, it isn't as if the time penalty is harsh, but those blood hawks outside are normally only active at night.  If you spend a lot of time looking for secret doors, the odds of another encounter happening on the way out (presuming it isn't dark initially) goes up.  Nothing massive, just a touch of consequence.   There doesn't seem to have been much to find here, absent a decision to extend one leg when nothing makes doing so an obvious choice, but if one of the bricked-over old rooms is uncovered then one magical trap farther in is largely nullified.  

Taking the constructed route leads the party to a room with an eternal flame burning in the center - dousing it is the only way to open a way forward.  This is a good use of puzzles; the answer seems obvious when reading it, but practice tells us this will take up a reasonable amount of game time and conversation while almost certainly being solved, and yet still deliver the satisfaction to the players which are the only (barely worthwhile) purpose of puzzles.

After that, there is the trope of danger presenting as beautiful women.  It isn't badly done, but I'd use this opportunity to remind DMs that unless you've woven nine encounters such as these into regular play that weren't dangerous at all to the players, including a subset that benefited the players, then they're not going to be fooled and will just start filling up the "women" with arrows, fire bombs, and assorted spells.  It isn't that I don't like the trope - it's a genre classic for a reason - but the number of DMs who only use the subversion never seem to get that you can't subvert what never happens according to expectations/normalcy.

Next is a room unlikely to be cracked except on the way back.  It has a really cool treasure - an efreeti bottle!  But the efreeti won't serve, even if the bottle is opened.  The text doesn't give any indication the efreeti is bluffing or fronting here, but I'd suggest its better if it is.  Or perhaps that the players can try to subdue it for an even greater reward than normal, for its initial intransigence.  Otherwise it feels like dangling a far better treasure than can be found elsewhere in the location in front of the players while preventing them from gaining it.

Following this is a wonder-room...a large chamber that seems as a night sky.  And also prevents the use of magic.  While it has no immediate or obvious tactical use or need to exist, that's also cool.  However - if things go south with the efreet, luring it here for combat would certainly tip the scales in the PCs favor, provided they discover the room's powers.  And hey - unless they ruin it, the room will exist for a long, long while...I can think of many reasons over a character's career that knowing the location of a secret large chamber where no magic works, would be very useful.

After that is a library of many old books and scrolls, and here is a place for an enterprising DM to seed many more adventure locations, rumors, legends, etc.  Don't be shy about expanding beyond the bare minimum description given here under a 2-page limit.  Players are going to perk up in situations such as these, and (just as with beautiful ladies) it only helps your campaign to typically match the trope whenever lost knowledge rooms such as this are found.  Becker doesn't make extracting such info easy - unless the PCs have comprehend languages immediately available, they're likely going to have to pick and choose a subset of material to take with them for later perusal.  Among the smattering of magic treasure usually present in places such as these is a variation of the spell invisible stalker, that summons a dune stalker (found in the Fiend Folio).  This might (but probably not) tip off wise players of the danger they'll face if looting the place before leaving, and is another opportunity for a natural "ah-ha" moment that levels up the player skill.

Last is the throne room, properly placed, with the skeleton still on the throne.  Players will absolutely be expecting a big fight with undead here; but coyly, the DM only offers them a chance to destroy treasure if they're trigger happy.  Just as with beautiful women, you need to make some dead things stay dead for the ones that come alive to work to maximum effect.

Very delightful entry.  No random encounter matrix - which feels right here.  

Monster Roster: centaurs, scorps, blood hawks, huecuva, efreet, likely a dune stalker.

Treasure: between 5,500 and 7,500 in gp value of monetary treasure. Magical items possible to come away with include: an axe +1, scroll with a couple of good mid-level spells, the very very rare spell for summoning dune stalkers, wand of lightning and potion of longevity.  No issues with treasure.

Do I think this will work: Yes

Do I like it: Yes

Nitpicks:  Only one really - while I think contextually it's clear that the magic mouth happens on the way out if the PCs have the gem in their possession, it's possible to read it that the mouth speaks when PCs take the treasure into their possession in the throne room.  Might be worth a couple of words to exclude that interpretation.