08 April 2013

Review of The Stealer of Children

Small Niche Games has just released a short but excellent Labyrinth Lord adventure for novice characters called The Stealer of Children, written by Peter Spahn. The plot is inspired by grim fairy tales: a nightmare creature is kidnapping the youngsters of Leandras Row, a small vaguely European village. The PCs are to confront and end the menace causing the trouble, but to do so will take some small bit of investigation.

There are three main areas of exploration: the village proper, a ruined manor house and enchanted Tanglewood. Tanglewood is a particularly interesting location as it can easily support additional material from the DM. That Tanglewood is also the name of a real-life music venue is strictly a problem for my fellow Massholes.

Spahn provides plenty of support for novice DMs with suggestions on how to handle the plot when the players go "off book." The advice helps bring the players and plot together for a satisfying conclusion without ham-fisted railroading.

The production is excellent: great maps, effective illustrations, a classy layout and professional writing. The first time reader can be forgiven for thinking there is a staff of editors managing this manuscript. It reads like a TSR product. This is in no small part due to Spahn's work in Dungeon magazine.

I am a bit jealous and irked at this high quality as this raise the bar for my own work.

I would expect about 4 gaming sessions to be had from the stock adventure. This is not a megadungeon. As I mentioned, Leandras Row can, as fleshed out as it is, can host many other adventures.

This sort of product is exactly why I find the Old School Roleplaying movement so enjoyable. Spahn captures the spirit of the great TSR modules of yore.

07 April 2013

Review: D1-2: Descent into the Depths of the Earth

At the end of G1-2-3: Against the Giants, author Gary Gygax had left clues about a shadowy force that was using the giants as cat's paws to further its own plans for domination. There was also a passageway to a deeper, darker place that the players could optionally follow. The details of that descent can be found in the D series of modules, the first two of which are collected in 1981's D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth (although the inside cover says the title is "Descent to the Depths of the Earth", which suggests some of the sloppiness found throughout the text). This module presents a high-level dungeon hack that should challenge even experienced players.

But hold on, I thought that the land of Greyhawk (on which these events take place) was located on a planet of Oerth? Gary was making the world up as he went along. Who among us can throw stones?

There are a lot of caves, caverns and underground seas available for exploration in these modules, as you might expect from the title. This all suggests the wonderful "hollow earth" canard that would be explicitly explored in the Mystara gazetteers published in the following years. However, hollow "Oerths" fit wonderfully with the original pulp fiction roots of D&D, especially here.

Each of the component modules (Descent into the Depths of the Earth and Shrine of the Kuo-Toa) is very short. There is one major encounter in each supported by a few minor ones. A good deal of fun in these adventures comes from complex random encounter tables and the inherent dangers of spelunking. Gygax insists that each DM flesh out the bones of the module with original content. While it is generally module design to encourage new material from the DM, this module omnibus could have benefited from additional supporting material and better organization.

The PCs not given a clear mandate to explore these warrens. No railroading here, thank you. The exploration of these caves is purely driven by either the inquisitive nature of the players or by some genocidal yen to exterminate the evil black elves. Is genocidal too strong a word? Let me quote from the prolog:

«While it is voluntary, there is also possible co-operation from avenging elves eager to wipe out the Drow.»

My inclination is to discourage wholesale slaughter of fictional creatures even at the gaming table. I will note the obvious racial overtones of the Drow and let you, reader, draw your own conclusions.

Since both modules are dungeon crawls, you would expect some carefully articulated cave maps and perhaps a host of tables describing random events that might befall the PCs. There is a hex map that presents more than 1500 square miles of underground caves. Unfortunately, this hexmap is, by far, the most poorly designed information system I can recall seeing from TSR. There is no compass rosette (in itself, a forgivable omission). Each encounter hex is unlabeled. The starting location of the PCs is neither called out on the map nor explicitly named in the text of the module! It can be puzzled out by carefully reading the clues of the text and by understanding how hexes are numbered. This highlights the worst aspect of this map: the coordinate system for naming hexes is outré at best. Let me explain.

The vertical axis is labeled with letters starting at the bottom with A and incrementing to B3 at the top. The very first row is unlabeled. That is, the alphabet is restarted three times. As a programer, this does not particularly phase me. But I cannot believe that a 13 year old would easily accept this. Worse than the vertical axis is the horizontal, which is numbered, starting with 000. That's right, 000. And that column appears on the right-hand margin. For an English speaker, this map is labeled upside and backwards. But there is more.

Recall that this is a hex map. Each vertical hex column is slightly offset from its neighbor. You might, coming from square Cartesian-style maps, be tempted to read each column as being perpendicular to the vertical axis. You (and I) would be wrong to do so. With the help of kind folks on Google+, I was informed that the "columns" are read on a diagonal starting at the bottom of the map and read toward the northeast -- the way no other map I have ever seen anywhere works.

Even this weird map (which many folks I talk to now say that they never understood as kids) could have been useful to readers if only Gygax had explained his serial clown madness in the text. How to read this hex map is explained in none of the D series modules.

I guess Lake Geneva in the 70s was just bursting with cartographers.

Even without understanding how to read the map, it is possible, with effort, to puzzle out where the encounter hexes are since there are so few of them. Each module contains one detailed map of an encounter area, which looks like what you would expect from a module. However, there a serious of "reusable" cave maps the DM is encouraged to use when random encounters occur between these detailed sections. I cannot decide if this is a clever mechanic or a lazy hack to get out of providing some explicit maps. You will have to judge for yourself.

While I do not wish to be spoilerific here, I will note that I like the content in both modules. The lich, in particular, is intriguing as is the ghoul migration. I could have used a little more meat on the mind flayer encounter. The Shrine of the Kuo-Tua actually made me care about these inbred religious fish zealots and their priest-prince in a way I had not expected.

Still, the connection with the Drow in these modules is thin. Yes, the Drow are all over the place, but what are they doing? If they cannot dominate their immediate neighbors, how can the menace the surface world? It seems like the Drow are in a great defensive position. They do not seem to have the resources to launch any kind of serious military action. But that's the stuff for a different post. What I wanted to see in these modules was a little more Drow menace or politicking so that the PCs might care enough to investigate further. As it is, I can see the PCs becoming very interested in the lich or the mind flayers or the Kuo-Toa, all of which seem like more promising and rewarding adventures than pursuing the moody dark elves to their goth hangout "that's totally underground, dude."

One thing that this module does get right is its handling of the Kuo-Toa goddess. It is possible for the PCs to met Princess Bloopy Doop (whatevs), but no stats are given for her. Gygax isn't even going to entertain god-slaying PCs and frankly neither should you.

I cannot let this long post end without mentioning the excellent art assets contributed by my dream team of illustrators: Erol Otus, Jim Roslof, Bill Willingham, Jeff Dee and Timony Truman. Both Willingham and Truman went on to comic book fame. You see great stuff from all of them in this work.

D1-2 has some great ideas for an adventure, but requires a lot of elbow grease from the DM before hustling PCs through. It is worth a $5 download from dndclassics if you want to see what a high-level dungeon crawl might look like.

03 April 2013

Review of Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits

David Sutherland III is well-known in Old School RPG circles. He contributed quite a few illustrations to first edition AD&D manuals and was the TSR cartographer for many of the early modules. Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits is his first and perhaps only credit as a module writer. And as a writer, well, he makes beautiful maps.

Q1 was supposed to be the conclusion to Gygax's great adventure cycle that begins with G1: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. Gygax even makes a lame excuse in the intro to Q1 about why he couldn't finish this one last module even though he had notes and everything.

Whatever, dude.

Sutherland takes a big swing at a high-level adventure. He attempts to bring in the high weirdness of astral travel and marry that to the brooding evil that one would expect from a dungeon on one layer of infernal Abyssal Planes. Heck, there are even some prototypical steampunk elements in the form of Lolth's insane spider ship.

And then there's that EGG...

All these elements are inventive, I grant you. However, some poor slob has to run this weak mess for a players. Does the module stand on its own?

Let's ask some basic questions about this adventure's quality. Is this a location-based adventure that can be fairly free-form? Is it a railroading exposition? Is there a clear objective for the PCs? Is that objective interesting? Does the module make getting to the objective interesting?

Q1 cannot be considered a location-based adventure. The previous module, D3: Vault of the Drow, certainly can be played in a variety of ways. The PCs can even visit the Drow city regularly, should they wish. But, dropping in on the Spider Queen for tea can only be done once. She is a minor god after all.

Which brings us to a big problem. The module's main objective seems to be implicitly: kill Lolth. I don't really think there is room for negotiation (but perhaps there is room for capitulation). Killing gods really is problematic for adventure play. If gods are weak, they become little more than "end bosses" in a campaign. If gods cannot be killed, then PCs have no hope of challenging them or their will. Gods are probably better handled as mute, magical mechanisms for plot.

Plot. There is a lot of whimsy in Q1, but not a lot of coherent action. Players sort of swing from one crazy location to the next without a lot of connective tissue. Not only will the party travel through the "demonweb pits" (which are more like inter-woven corridors), but the PCs may also visit various parallel worlds that Lolth is attempting to conquer.

She's a busy lady.

Sure, there are the nasty spiders, but they are kind of boring. Tolkien knew how to make spiders vile and fearsome. There are demons who are, like the spiders, fairly bland in their presentation. There are quite a few bugbears and gnolls. That Lolth must have a great recruiter on her staff.

What exactly does Lolth want? She wants to enslave all humans everywhere and then...I don't really know. She's a demon after all. I mean, she's a god. Or a mad steampunk scientist. OK. I really can't tell you what Lolth is, what she stands for, or what she wants for Christmas. She is just a big ball of sexy spider-evil who likes to leave the keys to her realm where high-level PCs can find them to kill her.

I may have seen her profile on Match.com once.

As much as I find Q1 nearly unplayable as module, it is an amazing source for getting the flavor of D&D in the late seventies. It's a bit more gonzo than S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

If Sutherland failed to deliver a solid RPG adventure, he certainly crafted an iconic artifact for the hobby. I suppose that is exactly what we should expect from an artist.

01 April 2013

TBG-B: The Evil of Witches Fen

My latest 1-page adventure is now available for free! It is a hex-crawl for levels 4-7 using Labyrinth Lord rules. Here's a taste.

"Completing your last mission brought you to Lankwick, a town best forgotten. You await the infrequent arrival of a ship to return you to civilized lands. In the meantime, danger, disease and even treasure can be found in the evil reaches of Witches Fen."

This is most certainly a location based adventure. You will need to bring a little something to the party to use this, but I hope you find the map evocative for an afternoon's play.