Friday, March 22, 2013

Gauntlet of Tyranny and Pain, Part 5

Zak tries really hard to read Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk and writes all the good ideas in big letters some more. 

Chapter 4: City of Thieves.
"Hey I just met you and this is crazy but the Thieves' Guild has learned of your exploits beneath Castle Greyhawk and will aid you in accessing the Guild of Wizardry, (which institution treaty, custom and spell forbid our members from infiltrating directly) and therein to thereupon acquire both the key we know is there which you need to explore the remainder of the Greyhawk dungeons and also a monkey we want."

"Fuck no, this is some kind of set up. Also, monkeys are cool, is there really a monkey?"
"No it's bronze. Anyway suit yourself, good luck getting into the Wizard Guild yourselves, there's absolutely no fucking information about how to do it without help from us and our magic bottle in the module."

"Magic bottle?"
"Yeah it's a magic bottle and you sit in it for 12 hours and we're the Thieve's Guild."

"How much crack are you on?"

Oh, if only.

So, against your judgment you get in a bottle that they give to a thief.

A thief sneaks it into Hogw…I mean the Wizard Guild hall.

You get out and there are some wizards trying to summon a demon there. But the wizards gave you  robes and this is a railroad module so they won't notice you.

Then there's the library. You look for a book. There's an invisible beholder.


I have a beholder. It's a wonderfully plausible, lifelike sculpt from Reaper. It was specially painted in understated reptile colors just specially for our TV show.

I have not yet, in 4 years of campaigning, sprung this or any beholder on my group, because I am saving it for late in the campaign--for the perfect moment, when its jarring appearance, keen alien intelligence and the well-known bad news of its eyeball powers will have maximum impact.

The authors of Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk clearly take a different view. This one's the Hogwart's librarian. And invisible. Which might've been at least tactically novel if there hadn't just been two powerful magical invisible monsters in the last chapter.


Although it has been entrusted with the guardianship of the library, Galubgex does not hesitate to destroy one or more sections of the bookshelves (using its disintegrate ray) if doing so gives it a better chance of bringing its powers to bear against the intruders.

Now far be it from me to say any particular use of an invisible flying eyeball with death rays is unrealistic but, much worse than that is: it denies the PCs the use of a tactic that makes sense in the fiction--hiding behind the books. Holding the books hostage. So, again, for the dozenth time in Expedition: don't bother thinking outside the box.

Anyway after you count your battlemap squares and punch it a lot until it stops moving, the thing you are supposed to find tells you to find the next thing you are supposed to find.

To keep them on edge, roll a few random Listen checks for guild functionaries, but all of these miraculously fail in the PCs’ favor due to Mordenkainen’s interference and sheer luck.

Soooo…this Mordenkainen helps you sneak through the halls but not in your fight with his employee the 11 HD, CR 13 invisible flying magic monst…don't think about it, don't think about it.

Then there's the most tragic part of this entire chapter. The use the word "tragic" is not casual. There are worse parts of this chapter--much much worse parts, and very soon--but this string of sentences has the specific dramatic arc unique to tragedy: wild and total failure by someone who so easily could've known better.

On their way to the Chamber of Seven Secrets (area 5), the PCs pass doors bearing the titles “The Pentagonal Path,” “Adept’s Gambit,” “Cities of the Red Night,” and “Eldritch Wizardry.” These doors have no handles and are barred from the inside, so they cannot be opened with knock. If any of these doors are somehow bypassed, the rooms they adjoin are devoid of features. (In truth, the contents of these rooms are curtained behind powerful illusions, which cannot be penetrated except by a guild wizard who speaks the proper command word.)

An awful revelation: the authors of Chapter 4 didn't just write awful badness, they wrote it with clear examples of coolness staring them in the face.

And what new grand vast hatedick did they invite the ghosts of Fritz Leiber and William S Burroughs over to watch them suck?

Ladies and gentlemen, the worst room in the history of role-playing games:

5. Chamber of Seven Secrets

Seven stone pillars, each a different color, reach down from the 10-foot-high ceiling of this chamber to its floor, which is thickly blanketed in multicolored fog.

.On each pillar is the oversized face of a smiling, round-cheeked, wizard with his eyes closed. All seem to depict the same man, but he wears a slightly different expression on every case...

In each of three corners stands a mechanical man made of wood and stone bearing a massive metal club.
Whether one takes a retributive, deterrent or rehabilitative view, there is still no punishment punishing enough for inventing this room and no nation equipped to carry it out. It defeats the concept of justice. It's like some awful new shoe that not only manages to be uggboot, croc and fanny pack all at once but to wear a headband while doing it like some merciless loveless ballsack donkeypunch bludgeon to the base of the skulls of all humanity's aspirations. It is (and I say this as a musician and a Jew) worse than bards and Hitler.

I once saw a Brooklyn cop with a tattoo of a dolphin jumping over a yin-yang shining light onto a full-color earth. It's worse than him.

And money changed hands to make it happen.


1. Since everyone already knows how lazy and stupid "testing" rooms where the in-world justification for the room that challenges the PCs is that it was designed by the architects to challenge the PCs are
2. And how it's even lazier and stupider when it's part of a sorceror's school
2. Because the mechanics of the discodadwizard robotcaveman room are so lame they constitute something of a basilisk antimeme so toxically fucked it would actually be dangerous for me to explain it here lest it fall into hands that might use it…

I'll just say: there's a quiz, you have to touch the pillars, and it's all very bad. Please don't use your imagination.


Then when your done with this load, fucking literally: a tall-backed chair swivels around to reveal…Mordenkainen. Waiting for you all this time.
"I knew there was no point in my fiendish traps or the monster I hired or the scholastic death-quiz Mr Bond, that is why I helped you a little bit with some of it…now…"

He, of course, Gives You a Quest.

The quest, at least, and at least in its bare outline, is interesting: Get the evil Bilarro to touch an orb deep down in the dungeon which will turn him back into a good guy (Robilar). Anything that requires a lot of kidnapping and NPC wrangling makes for a good moving part in an adventure.

Then horrible notes on roleplaying Mordenkainen:

Mordenkainen has spent a lifetime exploring the castle, so he is a useful resource for questions regarding the edifice. Though he wants to get back to the research he was conducting in Zagig’s study, he is willing to answer as many of the PCs’ questions about the place as you see fit to allow. Feel free, however, to have him hold back key pieces of information simply to keep the adventure interesting. Mordenkainen doesn’t want to make exploration of the dungeon that made him famous too easy for anyone else, lest his own legend be diminished—even if his reticence makes Robilar’s return less likely.

So Mordenkainen wants his trusted friend instead of the evil bizarro duplicate of his trusted friend…but not that much.

That is, he runs on plot logic. There's no point in talking to him or thinking about what he wants or bartering with him or any of that kind of shit. Again, yes maybe the wizard is unrealistic, but way more than that, he is not an invitation to think. He's just there to give you grief and jobs.

When you finish talking to him, you then get to leave, fighting the demon the wizards were summoning when you got here on your way out.

Headmaster Dumbled…I mean Mordenkainen…of course does fuck all to help you fight Ascariel the Unanticipated (which nice Vancian name reads here kinda like using the Venom font on a Black Keys T shirt).

And the module drops the ball on keepin' it real again:

Summoning Circle: The summoning circle in area 3 appears to be intact, but a careful examination (Search DC 10) reveals a small beetle covered with the paint that was used to finish the circle. The caster unknowingly painted over the beetle, and when it walked away, it disrupted the magic, allowing Ascariel to break free. (A successful DC 15 Spellcraft check reveals this fact.)

It never occurs to the module writers that PC might just fix the circle using materials lying around (the floor's covered in dead wizards who presumably carry magic chalk or whatever around) maneuver the demon back, and re-trap it. Or that you might then get it to do some stuff for you. Or that life need not be appalling.

Then you get back in your bottle.

Either you have already solved the cult subplot in Chapter Two or you haven't. If you haven't, the cult grabs the bottle and you wake up in the cult headquarters.

How did they know you were in there? They've been spying on you. Unpreventably. The module assumes ambient spying. That's also how Mordenkainen knew you were coming and why he gave you this quest which he gave you after you showed up because the Thieves' Guild was spying on you and sent you on the quest where you met him. See?

Here's a good part: when the PCs pop out of the bottle...

The cultists then begin to pepper the PCs with questions, hoping that the zone of truth keyed to the circular platform will ensure that the answers are correct. Typical questions include “What do you know of Vayne’s plan in Castle Greyhawk?” “Why are you investigating the castle?” and “Who else in the city knows about the Old One’s involvement?

Zones of Truth are always good for a laugh.

The cultists all have cleric spells and magic weapons and a undead monster of course, but whatever.

Here's another good part: "These small chambers contain several soiled overcoats used by the five cultists, plus three city guard uniforms, two noble’s outfits, and four purple-and-gold robes similar to those worn by clerics of Boccob."
I'm sure the point in the module designers' heads was just that it let you knew who was an agent of the cult in the city, but there are far better uses for all these things

These unanaesthetized abortions end when the PCs kill the cultists, get out and give the Thieves' Guild their widget and the Thieves' Guild gives them a magic item which will turn on them deep in the dungeon and make them do some dumb thing the Thieves' Guild needs done of course. But….

In the meantime, the PCs now control their own destiny.  With Zagig’s Key in hand, they are free to explore the dungeons below Castle Greyhawk’s Tower of Magic at their leisure. If they want to spend more time in the city, however, Greyhawk still has a few adventures left to offer them.

Dear Greyhawk City Tourism Bureau, I am a PC who just spent the last three days being Lebowskied from scene to scene by the Pinkerton Railroad, but now I have  a day off, what can I do?

Well a guy named Trolgar wants to sell you a haunted house! You buy it, then you fight three identical ghost monsters in it.

Remember that thief you may have released from the dungeon last chapter? You have the opportunity to find his unremarkable house and and then hit him in it for an xp reward.

And there's always that kung fu tournament over at the Temple of the Pointless Shoehorn...

"A gong hangs on the wall opposite the entrance. The fragrance of burning candles and the smell of autumn leaves pervade the air…"

The monks and authors jump through flaming (Energy: Flame, No reset) hoops to let the players use all their magic weapons and spells but only now in some kind of nonlethal way for the tournament. There are some magic rods or something which make it all work right. Dismal.


Oh, Chapter Four, you undeniable choad, let us now take the measure of your inflicted misery, as Anubis will one day in the Hall of Two Truths, as Ammut the Devourer hungers for your ungenerous heart:

Pages: 20
Words: 14,741
Good ideas: 3

Truly you are an agent of mediocrity and woe.
Next up! A pyramid, a verbeeg, and something called IAXITHRAX.


  1. I don't know if I want to encourage you to stop this madness out of mercy, or if I want to goad you into continued folly in order to watch your descent into insanity.

  2. This review contains the best paragraph since you flipped the script on Dogs in the Vineyard.

  3. "like using the Venom font on a Black Keys T shirt"
    Oh please... ...don't give anyone any ideas.

  4. "Ambient spying." It's been done to me as a player by a poor GM. Perfectly compatible with the "Automatic Magical Tracking with Arcane/Bullshit GPS." that ensued.

  5. I have never read a game module that requires less work than writing your own.

    Maybe we should chain Zac in a dungeon and get him to distill anything of interest from all the modules out there, and compile them into one book.

    We can call the dungeon the Tower of Caz

  6. I'm playing in a 2e Temple of Elemental Evil game-- I'd never been in the damn thing before, believe it or not-- & there is similar "this guy you figured out is a cultist has X number of robes in Y & Z colours" so you know there are other cultists in the town. I haven't seen the reverse. Anyhow mostly I see those & all I think-- for both examples-- are "oh hey disguises."