31 July 2012

Review: B1-9 In Search of Adventure

There has been a lot of talk about "megadungeons" in the OSR community this past year. From Stonehell, Barrowmaze and Dwimmermount to those many creations that the public never will see, dungeon crawling is often the primary setting for D&D. So it isn't surprising that players want to continuing delving into the deepening mysteries of chthonic chaos. TSR understood this urge and tried to address this desire with, as has been noted before me, modules like B4: The Lost City. But I think that an overlooked gem in this vein is In Search of Adventure(ISOA), which is part clip show and part mega-adventure.

For those that missed it, ISOA was published in what Grognardia would call the Silver Age of role playing (1987). I certainly was not playing much at all by that time, being drawn into the fantasy world of rock and roll (which is like LARPing, but with no dice). However, this publication caught my eye since it seemed to package all of the B-series modules into one cheap package.

And cheap is the operative word. The paper is extremely light weight and easily torn. It is perfect bound, so that it does not lie up particularly well. The maps appear at the end of the manuscript on perforated paper for easy tear up, I mean, out. So the production value is pretty low, at least by my lights. Sure, the manuscript was typeset according to the "modern" standards of TSR in late 80s (i.e. boxed texts, gray background sections, garamond-ish font). I favored the crazier layouts of the late seventies, which used font faces like Souvenir and Futura to great effect.

Note that all nine modules (B1-B9) are not presented in their entirety. Key encounters were extracted from each and presented as isolated nuggets of adventure woven together with a broad adventure flow chart that suggests a few ways a DM can seamlessly move his party from one venue to the next.

Again, the analog of this product to a TV clip show is a close one.

I want to give the talented Jeff Grubb props for making a solid attempt to make the reader forget that all this material is a rehash. His prefatory remarks introduce the land of Karameikos and the major location of Threshold in a way that is more brief that Gazetteer 1 and more detailed than the Expert rulebook. For this alone, I would recommend this product to those who want to run an adventure in Karameikos over the gazetteer.

After the introduction, each module is presented in its own section with enough setup information for the DM to run it. At the end of each module section is a few paragraph that details the fallout of the previous adventure and sets up a connector to the next adventure.

There are a few new illustrations. The manuscript is densely committed to text. Illustrations cost money and cause page bloat. They also really help to set the atmosphere for the players. The cover does present a trio of fierce, warpainted hobgoblins, which is very welcome. That picture alone piques my interest in creating a hobgoblin-centric adventure!

I have never run a party through an entire adventure flow, but I would like to. The adventures in this product (it's not module, is it?) really do help bring Threshold to life and will help to springboard the party into further adventures in Mystara.

Get this module if you really want to explore Threshold and bring it to life.

However, if you are interested in running the individual adventures in a standalone fashion, B1-9 is likely to disappoint.

28 July 2012

Review of N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. The module is thirty years old, so I imagine the word has already gotten out about most of what I am about to write about.

Sometime between 1982 and 1984, I bought this fine module written by Douglas Niles. From notes in my copy, I can see that I used the NPCs listed in the back for other adventures. However, I never ran my party through it.

N1 is explicitly designed to be used for a game involving 4-7 novice adventures and a DM. The is a lot of great pulp action and tropes in this stuffed module: a troubled town fearful of strangers, an evil cult with deranged clerics, a mad hermit and a showdown in the moors.

The play consists of these bits: exploration of the Orlane village and the interrogation of its inhabitants, followed by a fairly contained wilderness exploration that concludes in an assault on the fortified lair of a very powerful, spell-wielding naga.

An interesting mechanism found in this module is that the players may be kidnapped at some point. Frankly, I don't think I could pull this off with my players. There isn't much chance of escape or rescue, so this seems like a total party kill. Perhaps readers will chime in with different experiences. However, the mechanism of kidnapping NPCs is will established and serves as a great plot mover.

In contrast to T1, the town of Orlane has many "feint" encounters that should be straight forward to DM and which are fun for the players. Hey, who doesn't like to bash troglodytes?

The final showdown with the Naga Explicatica Defilus (a faux latin name that perhaps might mean "the cause of filth") seems crazy hard for even 7 well-armed first level PCs. She is a 9 HD creature with serious fire power. Of course, the module hopes that the PCs befriend the mad hermit Ramne, a level seven mage who should provide enough cover for the PCs to contribute something to the demise of this Big Bad. Niles uses the old saw of rumors to set up player expectations in Orlane, which may be hokey, but it works.

The NPCs are particularly well drawn and engaging. I enjoy the bad crazy of Ambramo who scrawls on his bed room walls "snake mother" and "a crocodile has many teeth." Now that's what I call "pulp atmosphere."

This module has a fine selection of monsters from both the Monster Manual and Fiend Folio. The monsters are well integrated for me, but others might find the collection of beasties in the Naga's lair a little forced.

All told, I really like this module. It balances "community theatre" RPG stuff with solid combat situations. The final assault should prove challenging even for parties with some third level PCs. The motivations of the villagers is clear and easy for a DM to extrapolate.

Is it a little "railroady"? Perhaps. The party is mostly dumped on Orlane and expected to lend a hand. I am OK with this, but I know others want a more compelling backstory. The final showdown with the Naga is the most problematic for me. If the PCs do not have Ramne with them, this fight is going to be really short. However, if they win, they win big. The treasure is a small fortune and includes the excellent bag of holding, a boat load of spells and a few rings.

26 July 2012

Flailsnails Realms: Where PCs go to die

You and your party of PCs fight have fought through countless dank dungeons, mysterious mazes and creepy castles. Every time, you fought against NPCs controlled by the DM. Perhaps you had some inter-party dust-ups, but generally, your DM enforced a peace for the sake of gameplay.

But two inventions present an opportunity to marry the hard work of building a PC with the fun of killing another PC in a SAFE environment.

Flailsnails, that anything-goes style of RPG adventuring in which players from different RPG system co-exist is a great way to spice up your tabletop and get more play time in with different groups of people.

Google Hangouts and the web in-general, allow instant and free teleconferencing and information sharing.

Combine this two with a bit of custom glue I'll describe in a bit and you get Flailsnails Realms, in which guilds of PCs battle each for ranking and in-world booty.

It's a kind of megadungeon where YOU are the monster.

Imagine conducting raids on rival guilds, battling *real* PCs under the watchful eye of a human DM. The prize? Rankings, gold and other in-world booty that can help fortify your own guild keep. And XP that travels with you to your other games.

The trick to making the work is to crack a few technical problems:

  • a fair and distributed mechanism of ranking DMs
  • a fair policy for handling combat for players who aren't available
  • thinking through both the in-world rewards and allowable PC takeaways

The first problem is perhaps the most interesting to me. Online communities often have trouble with this. Tracking player victories and defeats is straight-forward as these can be recorded by the DM (who is then rated by the players).

The key mechanic is that PCs don't actually die in the realm. That would be too cruel. But being defeated does have consequences (i.e. PC can't raid for awhile, guild ranking is dropped, etc.).

I am only getting started with this idea.

Does this sound interesting to you? Have you already seen this done?

02 July 2012

Review: T1 The Village of Hommlet

This venerable Gygax adventure comes from his famous Greyhawk setting. It is meant to introduce new players to the setting. It is a short book (16 pages of meat, followed by many maps) and features but one dungeon with two levels. Pretty thin gruel.

Or is it?

Most of this module is devoted to details about the village and its inhabitants. So much so, that I cannot find an explicit mandate from an NPC for the party to explore the moathouse at all!

Instead, Gygax presents a module thick with role playing. The players, it seems, are expected to interact with a good deal of the locals, getting hints of their intrigues and, if there's time, go have a Scooby-Doo adventure in the creepy old moathouse.

In the hands of a DM that enjoys community theatre roleplaying, the village is the adventure. With wonderfully evocative place names like the Church of St. "Square corners can be pounded smooth" Cuthbert and Inn of the Welcome Wench (good luck publishing an adventure with that kind of name now), it is hard not to want to explore this town.

But again, my complaint is that as a combat-oriented adventure, it is a bit lacking. The moathouse is far from a megadungeon. I would guess that a party would clear it out in 2-3 sessions. Some of the encounters seem a little overmatched for a first level group. It needs to noted that Gygax suggests mixing in a few second and third level PCs into the group. You may need to tweak the encounters in the moathouse for absolute beginners.

Of course, there is a 6th level fighter named Rufus and an 8th level magic-user named Burne that will adventure with your party for a crazy cut of the treasure. That seems nuts to me.

T1 was meant to be the first act of two act drama concluding in the The Temple of Elemental Evil, which promised to be mind blowing in its unfettered awesomeness. However, as a standalone adventure for those without inclinations toward acting, T1 has perhaps too much detail on the town and too little in the way of monster bashing.

One of the great things about OSR today is crowdsourced enhancements. Just look at this color rendered map of Hommlet or this 3D version of the moathouse. Great visual aids and you get it for free.

I know this module is much beloved, but frankly, it doesn't fit my temperament at all. I am old enough to drink real beer with real ladies. I don't need to pretend to that in a fantasy town to make imaginary friends.