Thursday, March 21, 2013

This Module Was Not Properly Loved, Part 4

Hi, I'm Zak and I try to write a blog.
A few days ago I started reading a module called Expedition To the Ruins of Greyhawk.
I am reading it all the way through it and when I find a good idea, I write it in big letters.

I've done it three times already and I keep not stopping.

(I guess I should give it its own tag.)

This morning, 55 pages in, I got to the first part of the actual dungeon, the Tower of War.
Ok so after the intro that repeats what we've already been told about this place we can...

No, wait, before you can go in there's Tax Dwarves.

Tax Dwarves?

Well here's the thing: players of adventure games have an automatically ironic relationship to those worlds. This is because adventure is, by definition, acts that are exotic and unusual in a given society. This is why heroes in fictions ask to be read about: they do what others do not. However, players of adventure games, since they--by definition--take the role of adventurers, are, unlike the imaginary population of the world they adventure in, all adventurers. So while inside the fiction adventuring and all the things that it involves are rare and exciting, outside the fiction, among the players of the game, it is not just common, it is the only thing anyone ever does. All players of adventure games over the age of 10 realize this fact, and great thick hoary veins of humor of it have been mined from it for decades from Dragon Mirth to Penny Arcade to whatever your last forum snark was.

Like First Panel Of Lame Webcomic: Curse You, Good Guys, I Had The Ruby In My Grasp! Now I Cling For Dear Life To This Bridge
Second Panel: Villain falls
Third Panel: Party Barbarian looks down
Fourth panel: Party Barbarian hangs head in disappointment
Fifth panel:
Wizard: Feather Fall?
Barbarian: Feather Fall.

So, yes, we all know how totally unexotic and done-before every single thing that is supposed to be magic and amazing and cool in an adventure is supposed to be. And you know what? 90% of enjoying a game is transcending that and finding ways to make it fresh and exciting again anyway.
SO sick of Sorry
And you're DMing and trying to do that and delving deep into 223 pages of dungeon and thinking Oh Certainly! Herein Lies Much Potentiality and Mystery!

And then even before you get in there's Tax Dwarves.

These are a clan of dwarves who make a living sitting at the gate demanding an entrance fee for everyone who wants to enter the dungeon and who are a perfect in-game metaphor for the kind of RPG gatekeeper dicebag DM who think Tax Dwarves are really clever.
Anyway, now can we go in?

Yes you can, and then face THE WAR WAGON! It's a chariot drawn by skeletal horses piloted by ghosts in the first room of the dungeon. It tries to kill you. It sucks.

Guys, life has simple rules: Righty tighty, lefty loosey. Beer before liquor never sicker. A skeletal horse chariot rumbling at you across a dying landscape in the arid dawn is apocalyptically cool. A skeletal horse chariot chasing you in circles around a room isn't. Learn.

Then…some stairs down down to the fourth and fifth levels of the dungeon.

We are now hot on the trail of those orcs that attacked that caravan in the introductory scene waay back at the beginning of this read through and we will remain so for the rest of the chapter. 

Such charm as these levels have is purely Stalinist: you have to believe that quantity has a quality all its own. 

And yes, I can see something of a vision for these dungeon levels beneath the dropshadows and between the overwide margins: it's a vision of desperate PCs racing like from room to room in hails of crossbow fire as ever more horrible monsters lurch from every corner, losing ammunition, losing spells, losing friends. Like a Halloween house plus Blackhawk Down plus They Have A Cave Troll over and over and over and over like a Laibach song of stone and death that just will not end.

This is a fine vision, and one that is really easy to bring to realize: put some tunnels, put some big beasts, lay back--it'll be fun. The question here is: did they bring any twists to this classic setup that are worth paying money for?

Highlights…or, lights….

-A fistfull of goblin archers plus 2 giants and a pit with a crazed tentacle monster in it. Makes you just want to walk over to the game designers and go "Yes that's a wonderful tower you've built out of your ravioli." Pat pat.

-A statue of an evil death god that wants revenge on the monsters now in the dungeon faction for decapitating it. It's nice because if the PCs do its creepy bidding three times in three places in the dungeon they get a raise dead spell (though it should be one for the whole party, not one for each party member). And nothing bad happens.

-Boss orc with disguised succubus: This could've been so much better. If the disguised succubus wasn't contained in this one encounter (Help an orc! Oh thank you sir! Kiss! Murder) but was instead just released into the dungeon to be rescued by the party and then activated when the time was right. But no, this is definitely pre-4e mentality where everything is an Encounter and happens on a Grid and you meet things and fight them and do it 'til they're dead.

Also, why do we already have a guy dating a succubus?
All respect to the Atolamyr, Male half-orc ranger 2/fighter 4/blackguard 3's game but do we have to burn through all the best parts of the monster manual in the first day in the dungeon?

-An invisible tiefling assassin-type who sneaks up to the PCs and tries an auto-kill attack. Always nice when the monsters act like PCs.

-Elevator: could've been s000ooooOOooo much better. The orc archers are waiting for you when you exit the elevator. How about: the orcs shoot up the elevator shaft the whole time you're in the elevator (which you make a rickety brass cage that does not snugly fit its shaft) and some of them crawl up and try to cut the rope? That's some Dungeons & Dragons.

-Den of the Dark Naga: I'm giving this one points just because it's among the module's rare eruptions of good taste:

This small square chamber is made entirely from polished black marble. A dais sits across from the doors, and behind it is a niche holding a silver gilded chest. Small mounds of bones litter the floor.
...even though it's really just a monster in a room (and it's invisible again.)

-Chasm of woe: Like the goblin/giant/tentacle pit again only with a bridge and some whole other carnival of freaks (zombie gargoyles I think?). Whatever.

-Boss fight in an arena: remember the first scene where you fought a high-ranking orc with an FAO Schwarz worth of standard magic items and a wyvern? Well this is exactly the same only now the wyvern has two more legs and more hitpoints and so we call it a "dragon".
-There's a thief to be rescued and a cleric to be rescued. One explains the plot and points out a secret door in case you missed it. One goes off and becomes a nuisance in the city that you can choose to do something about if you wanna. So: one too essential to be interesting, one too extraneous to be interesting. 

-Then a talking skull that summons a Vrokk. 

Say what you like, it's a full day.
Y'know what would make this area instantly better?

Array these rooms more or less around a central room and put the door-blocking statue puzzle from the last chapter in the center. Or make two hub rooms and put one in each. It'd make a great weapon if the PCs could figure out how to work it. long as the disguised succubus and/or the invisible assassin didn't see them figuring it out and use it against them.

Man now I'm tempted to take off one point just because of how good it could have been. Anyway, no shenanigans--score for this section....

Pages: 31
Words: 19,910
Good ideas: 3

If you think that looks bad, brace yourselves though, because in the process of sucking every known dick, it includes the worst room in the history of role-playing games.


scrap princess said...

So the skeletal chariot in a room could be awesome if it was one of those spherical "murderdome" rooms that carnys drive motorcycles really fast in so they can go on the ceiling and shit.

Jonas said...

I think tax dwarves sound something that could work if you would make them more like the Duty faction in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. videogame.

Nagora said...

The tax dwarves are the first thing I've noticed that have some derivation from the original Greyhawk. EGG seems to have run a background story of the continual squabbles of groups who wanted to extort a fee from adventurers accessing the ruins. This gave players a chance to exploit the various would-be tax collectors and play them off against each other in various ways à la Yojimbo. Which still seems potentially fun to me even today. It needs to be dynamic rather than just a static "Some dwarves demand payment with menaces", though.

Bruno said...

Not sure I can laugh at the Tax Dwarves since I came up with the Dungeon Broker...
Oh to hell with it, I'll laugh at the Tax Dwarves. At least the 'Broker doesn't just stand in front of a dungeon as if it was visited daily! xD

Peter D said...

The Black Reservoir story has some elves that do the same thing - they let the PCs buy in exchange for a tithe of what the PCs find. If it's lame, it's at least old-school lame.

Zak Sabbath said...

Yes, it's a very old and very stupid idea

John said...

It sounds like something the players thought up to bilk other players out of their money.

Didn't Blackmoor have a giant elvish fair sitting on the dungeon entrance, filled with shady wheeling and dealing? That's a much more interesting take.

Peter D said...

Is it okay if players do it?

Or is it always stupid to have NPCs charge a fee for dungeon access?

Just curious where the limits of the idea's goodness or badness lie in your opinion.

Neil Willcox said...

Zak! Zak! There's a girl in her pants behind you!

Or maybe not anymore. If not, just go back to reading the module.

Konsumterra said...

I have royal dungeoneer corp build fort on dungeon and pressgang adventurers into military style siege vs dungeon - all magic property of emperor.

Jeedy Jay said...

I remember seeing the cover of that ridiculous book in a Safeway a year or two ago - I was compelled to take a picture of it and show all my friends to give them something to love/hate for a few hours.

Also, I seem to be in a minority of this these days, by I don't think the number of legs a dragon has should matter. What makes a dragon a dragon is how it acts and what role it plays in the narrative.

Zak Sabbath said...

I think it's stupid when NPCs do it (it implies people just go in and out of the dungeon all the time) and I think if players set up any kind of business the risk is you end up playing accountant in stead of having adventures

So if it leads to that, it's bad--if not, it's not.

Zak Sabbath said...

Yeah, in this case both times it shows up and hits people until they die or it does. And that's it.

Pretty lame.

richard said...

Where is the love for the amphiptere, that's what I want to know.


Continued thanks for doing this continually thankless task AND coming up with ideas out of it. I think my brain would've been numbed by now.

Peter D said...

Yeah, that makes sense. I'd say it's fair if it's better explained (orcs live on level 1, but they'll let you through their territory to level 2 for a toll), avoidable (there is another way to level 2), or otherwise surmountable (kill the orcs).

It does seem lame if it's set up like a toll booth into the dungeons. Although it might work if it's more like a toll booth into the treasure hunting grounds, like the sequin fields in Planet of Adventure.

OtspIII said...

I'll defend the idea in general, although maybe not so much in this execution. Some way to give each visit into the dungeon a bit of a cost associated with it is a nice encouragement for the players to have nice long delves instead of constantly falling back every time they get hurt or blow a spell.

I like the idea of a faction who just kind of lives there but is willing not to give you a hard time in exchange for money better than actual tollmen, but even tollmen can be a fun incentive to find secret doors into the dungeon or can be a nice way to introduce high-powered monsters/factions on early levels of the dungeon to stashed away to be defeated when the characters are a bit higher level.

Zak Sabbath said...

There are _SO_ many ways to execute that same mechanical purpose without be boring and mundaneifying the setting that I can't see how you can defend it.

Nicolas "Ungoliant" Senac said...

I think Beedo's Well of Woe is a good illustration of how you could make this better.

Zak Sabbath said...