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


  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?

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