Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Review of The Grinding Gear Plus Things It Made Me Think About


So this is going to be two things:

-A Review of the one-shot adventure The Grinding Gear by James Edward Raggi IV, put out by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, (WITH SPOILERS) and

-some rambling about things it made me think about.

So bear with me...

First, The Tomb-Of-Horrors-Issue

Now, The Grinding Gear brings up what I call The Tomb of Horrors Issue, which goes like this:

There's a doorknob.

Turning the doorknob the right way opens the door to the next room, turning the knob the wrong way activates a trap that kills you and your whole family and your cat.

The knob looks normal and has no reliable and certain clues as to which way is the wrong way or even that there is a wrong way. The only way to deal with it is to either to:

A) Be very lucky, or

B) Realize there might be a trap there before going anywhere near the door and then dream up a clever, safe way to test the door, or

C) Die, roll up a new character and do it the other way the next time.

If you imagine a whole dungeon full of things basically like that, that's Gary Gygax's Tomb of Horrors--a module created because everyone was complaining earlier modules for D&D were too easy.

Some people hate Tomb of Horrors and think it's just a sadistic joke because it will kill you if you don't scrupulously prepare and don't go slowly and methodically and don't use every resource at your disposal and don't try to think just like the person who built it.

Some people love Tomb of Horrors and think it's an awesome intellectual challenge because it will kill you if you don't scrupulously prepare and don't go slowly and methodically and don't use every resource at your disposal and don't try to think just like the person who built it.

Now there is an internet controversy, which I hope is settled by now, about whether it is even possible to beat Tomb of Horrors (without knowing the module beforehand) using the rules as they existed at the time the module was written. According to the Internet, not only is it possible, it has actually been done--in public--with official TSR people adjudicating. It's just really hard.

(There are many other people, of course, who claim to have done it or seen it done, but there will always be controversy about whether they did it totally by-the-book and with no prior knowledge. The Gen Con example, however, is a seemingly totally legit historical example of a successful finish.)

A more interesting question is whether it is fun to try to beat Tomb Of Horrors--that is, whether it's fun to go through a dungeon slowly and methodically and largely without combat and all the while trying to pre-empt the thousands of ways any given architectural feature you see might be trying to kill you.

The answer to this question is, of course, entirely subjective, and depends on your players' temperament.

You could accurately call Tomb of Horrors a Death Trap Dungeon because it's full of death traps, but it's not a very useful name because nobody likes to walk into a death trap. (Hey, you wanna go into the Death Trap Dungeon? Uhhh...) and you can accurately call Tomb of Horrors a Funhouse Dungeon because it's full of gimmick architecture, but that's not useful because everybody likes a funhouse. (Want to go into the funhouse? Sure! Fuck, I'm dead.) The most useful name for Tomb of Horrors is a Puzzle Dungeon because only players who like puzzles will like it. (Which is not to say all players who like puzzles will like it, but you get me.)

So anyway, know now that The Grinding Gear is a puzzle dungeon--though it's not designed to be nearly as hard as Tomb of Horrors. Knowing that, let's take a look at it:


I love the format of the thing--a short, 'zine style, stapled adventure in between a few unattached nested covers. The maps and a handout are printed on the covers and there's a short, pleasant, honest description of what kind of dungeon TGG is at the beginning. Efficient, transparent, and easy to use. In a perfect world, there would be thousands of inexpensive one-shot adventures printed up in exactly this format at every train station in the world written by thousands of different DM's all over the civilized world.

But enough of my utopian babbling--I don't want to waste space describing the production values--let's just say they do their job admirably.

So, Anyway What's In It...

The Grinding Gear a puzzle dungeon written for low-level characters. It is well-written, clearly presented, and has, so far as I can tell, no lapses in logic (though, as with any puzzle dungeon, an unexpected magic item or homebrew spell could be used to bypass a particular gimmick's logic, but there's nothing anybody can do about that).

It's perhaps not truly a full-on sandbox because it's largely linear--that is, there are many rooms that can only be accessed in order, and there is a certain point past which, if the PCs haven't already been certain places, they will probably die. You can't really just romp around in there--it has a beginning, middle and end, a sort of "plot" that is built into the structure of the dungeon.

This is similar to Death Frost Doom, by the same author. However, in DFD there is a distinct possibility that the PCs will spiral off the rails into their own semi-self-created lunacy before reaching the "decision points" in the dungeon. The Grinding Gear doesn't have nearly as much entropy-fuel (though between the random-encounter charts and standard PC behavior, anything's possible). Whether or not it is in any given game session, The Grinding Gear seems to want to be mostly a series of dungeon-puzzles presented more-or-less in order with a few familiar-type encounters in between. That is, the designer's creativity went mostly into the puzzles.


What Kind of Puzzles Are In The Grinding Gear?

First off, this is the kind of dungeon where players will want to remember to roll to find secret doors and will want to succeed at these rolls. In fact, if there is a major mechanical "bump" in this adventure it's that DMs will need to know exactly how they want to adjudicate the "find secret doors" rules for whatever system they're using before they run The Grinding Gear. Is finding secret doors active or passive? Do the PCs know when they've failed? Are there circumstances under which players are allowed to roll more than once? The answers to these mechanical questions could easily mean the difference between life and slow death for the PCs. Before publishing this review, I sent Raggi an e-mail asking how he ran it, here's his response:
Players have to declare a search and where they are searching. If
they describe how they are searching, and that description seems
like it would make the secret door easier to find, I give them a
bonus to their chances.

If the secret door has no special method of opening it listed, a
success finds the door and the opening mechanism. If there is a
specific way to open it mentioned (say, "removing x book from the
library shelf opens the door in the west wall for 60 seconds"),
then the success finds the door but not how to open it.

For example, if searching the statue in the beginning for secret
doors or compartments, a success would find that one side seems to
be moveable, but I wouldn't tell them that pressing the plaque is
what causes it to open.

I don't tell the players if they succeeded or failed in the roll,
just if they found something or not. If they didn't find anything,
they don't know if it's because nothing is there to find or they
just failed to notice it.

I absolutely allow re-tries. Each search takes one turn. I thought
that was the D&D standard... But with all the different editions
and clones that all change minor details, it very well may not be
I recommend that--in addition to the other very helpful introductory notes on rules to pay particular attention to when running The Grinding Gear--Raggi includes something like that passage if TGG is ever printed again.

Ok, so there's looking for traps. What else?

In addition to monster encounters (most of which are, if not easy, at least fairly straightforward in their tactical set-up) and various dungeon features which will probably have no direct effect on the outcome one way or the other, I count 26 distinct puzzles.

Allowing for overlap, borderline cases, judgement calls, and Gordian solutions by players ("I ask my precognitive belt buckle which door to take"), these puzzles break down into:

10 tests of caution, in one form or another--2 of which are of the you'd-be-better-off-just-staying-the-hell-away-from-this-dungeon-feature-altogether type,
2 tests of thoroughness,
1 (long) test of resource management (the whole second floor),
8 tests of gullibility (most of which are non-deadly in themselves and will generally only waste time if the PCs go for them),
4 puzzles that test perceptiveness, memory and thoroughness simultaneously,
1 that tests thoroughness and caution simultaneously.

So, although this is a puzzle dungeon, it's a puzzle-dungeon of a very specific kind: the players aren't being tested on their ability to solve riddles, figure out mechanisms, figure out obscure uses for magic items, or find hidden meanings in things. It rewards methodical thinking rather than flashy thinking--it rewards people who really crawl through their dungeoncrawls.

...which is exactly what it claims to do. So here we have a product that is what it says on the tin: a low-level one-shot puzzle dungeon that tests the player's dungeoneering skills.


Where it somewhat falls down for this reviewer is in the style department: a few of the the set-pieces that make up the adventure are excellent, and none of them are bad, but, likewise, none of them deliver the suggestive weirdness Raggi's capable of. He set the bar pretty high for himself with creepy and inspiring products like Death Frost Doom and People of Pembrooktonshire, both of which point to depths far beyond what's presented in the text, so when you find out that the premise of Grinding Gear is simply that somewhere off the beaten path there lives a crazy innkeeper/inventor, and this guy created the dungeon specifically to test adventurers, it's a little disappointing.

As a villain, there's something tediously provincial about Garvin Richrom--the dungeon's fictional designer: he includes puzzles requiring you to spell out his own name and remember how many guest rooms are in his inn. It ain't Lovecraft. In terms of overall tone, The Grinding Gear ranges from dungeon-standard at best to Harry Pottery at worst. While GG could be run in any number of ways, and the second-level could, if tuned properly, be a great ticking-clock thriller, it isn't pre-packaged with the black magic that I want from a LOTFP product.

Or, to put it another way, when I first read Death Frost Doom, I wanted to run it immediately to see how my players would react; when I read Grinding Gear, I wanted to cannibalize it for parts (which its relatively simple structure makes fairly easy). So: I'll take the engine, but that matte-brown paintjob has got to go. As one-shots go, I give it a 7 out of 10.


  1. The best Tomb of Horrors story I've read was the party realizing one of the false entry set of doors was made of a precious metal. (Electrum IIRC)

    They went back to town, hired a crew of Dwarves, excavated around the doors and took them off their hinges. The took the doors back to town, sold them and were set for character life. Didn't bother with the rest of the dungeon.

    I believe the now free version of ToH has changed the doors because of this. At least the written description of plain oaken doors doesn't match the picture provided.

  2. "Now there is an internet controversy, which I hope is settled by now, about whether it is even possible to beat Tomb of Horrors (without knowing the module beforehand) using the rules as they existed at the time the module was written."

    Depends on what you mean by beat.

    The first time I played the Tomb of Horrors, a group of PCs went in with some henchmen/hirelings. My best friend Joe and I didn't know the other players and tended to stick together and watch each others backs while everyone else was very 'every man for himself'. In total I think it was about 7 or 8 characters who went in, with all the PCs being pretty high level.

    Joe's Elven Fighter/Magic User and my Dwarven Fighter/Thief managed to defeat the main baddie, escape and bath in the riches you received as the result of what we could only assume was a typo that said millions of GP was found.

    We basically watched the rest of the team fail at things and then figured out what to do next. Toward the end we trussed up the body of one of our fallen former allies and used his body to test a few of the traps.

    Good times, good times.