Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Retrospective: Dungeon #64 (Sept/Oct 1997)

Spoiler alert! Of course, 15 years is well past the spoiler statute of limitations.

These were some pretty memorable adventures; after all these years I remembered a little about all of them, although perhaps more about the scene at Lathtarl's Lantern than the actual adventure it's in.

"Grotto of the Queen", by Paul and Shari Culotta (AD&D Forgotten Realms, Levels 6-9): The ambush of a rival adventuring party offers the PCs an opening to raid the submerged temple of the evil sea goddess Umberlee. The hook into this adventure is fairly contrived, requiring a fair amount of DM engineering: the adventurers are approached by a Lantanese emissary, to recover a magical boat taken by the cult of Umberlee. The party's nemesis (a 14th-level wizard with nothing better to do than follow the party and engineer some scrapes for them) warns the cult of their attack, and the cult prepares an ambush, which is instead triggered by a rival adventuring party. Alternatively, the author suggests that the cult of Umberlee has an effective spy network, which seems like a much simpler backstory.

Either way, the adventurers travel in an advanced Lantanese ship to a pirate enclave of Lathtarl's Lantern, on the Sword Coast between Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep. This is a neat little evil pirate town: it has a huge tavern full of dozens of pirates and outlaws, along with a couple of gnolls, ogres, and half-orcs, all drinking and carousing. There's a high likelihood that adventurers will get into a barroom brawl, ending in a boxing match before a shouting, leering crowd. Most of the residents are followers of Umberlee, so the adventurers should use some sublety in town. The grotto itself is a well-conceived dungeon, built by terrestrial worshippers of an evil sea goddess. The moderately-sized complex opens with some traps, some of which have been triggered, and can catch the temple unawares. Which is good: the final encounter should be very challenging, with a sea priestess who uses the environment of the confined, flooded temple to good advantage.

I don't like the plot of this adventure, but the actual setting and dungeon are pretty great. With some modest re-skinning, it would be an excellent addition to a campaign involving grim pirates who follow evil sea gods or demons.

"Bzallin's Blacksphere", by Christopher Perkins (AD&D, Levels 12-15): In the town of Horizon, a sphere of annihilation is growing and threatening to destroy the community. The town's wizard-protector Amazzer (Wiz17) believes that his predecessor Bzallin is responsible for this. So the adventurers travel to Bzallin's ruined keep and destroy its guardians (a hibernating necromancer and some powerful undead), then travel from there to the lich Bzallin's lair: a pocket demiplane suspended within the quasielemental plane of Vacuum. It's not a tesseract, but the geometry of Bzallin's Cube is interesting enough to temporarily confound mappers. This demiplane is full of Bzallin's apprentices (themselves fairly powerful wizards), his demonic and daemonic servitors, and a number of magical traps and wards. There's many of the delicious trimmings you would expect of a high-level lich's lair, making use of a wide range of evocative higher-level spells. This is a high-level, high-magic romp, and the author is probably right in suggesting that the DM refer extensively to all volumes of the Encyclopedia Magica. There's probably about two to three dozen encounters, ranging from Bzallin's apprentices (who are mostly around 10th-level wizards) to the lich himself, a near-epic-level enounter.

One thing that's apparent about the suggested level of these adventures, generally speaking, is that an average-sized party needs to be near the high end of the level spread, not the low end. A 6th-level party in "Grotto of the Queen" will probably get killed, while a 12th-level party in "Bzallin's Blacksphere" is very badly outclassed by the big bad. Anyway, I love wizards and liches, and "Bzallin's Blacksphere" is definitely my favorite from this issue.

"Last Dance", by Jeff Crook (AD&D Ravenloft, Levels 4-6): In the city of Pont-à-Museau in the domain of Richemulot, the adventurers are hired by Madame Araby Tuvache, a psychopath, to clear out her basement of rats. In fact, she plans to trap them inside and kill them with her clockwork house of marionette horrors. The plot is simple and the dungeon doesn't seem all that dangerous, but this adventure is certainly gruesome. The PCs are not really expected to defeat the villain—if they kill her, the Dark Powers of Ravenloft transform her into an even worse creature, a Greater Animator running a haunted house—but merely to explore the environment and make it out alive. I'm not sure why the heroes don't just burn the place down from the get-go. This may be short enough to finish in a single session.

"The Mad Chefs of Lac Anchois", by Jennifer Tittle Stack (AD&D, Levels 6-9): So, Pol and Prue Dhomme, a pair of Francophone cloud giant restauranteurs have captured some grippli young (instead of giant frogs) to butcher and serve for some giantish food critics that will visit their establishment, Chez Grands Frères, in three days. The grippli tribe mother asks some adventurers to intervene and rescue the children, and why not? How PCs approach this problem is fairly open-ended: they can try stealth, role-playing, deceit, negotiation, or even a direct frontal assault. The restaurant has several kobold waitresses (Francine, Chapponage, and Amortisseuse) to serve human-sized customers, although getting past the half-ogre mage wine steward Brummel and into the kitchen will be a challenge. If the adventurers attack the chefs, they may battle a dough golem or suffer the effects of their dreaded spoon of transmuting flesh to roquefort. The cloud giants are not actually evil evil, they just don't realize that the grippli young are sentient creatures.

This could be an interesting variant on a rescue-the-princess scenario, but the adventure plays it for laughs, and humor in D&D can be quite difficult to pull off. I don't think that the author quite succeeds; it seems pretty goofy. Of course, there is a time and a place for all things. Perhaps this adventure could be lighter interlude and welcome relief from a gruelling hack-and-slash campaign against giantish foes, such as G1-3: Against the Giants, where there is little or no opportunities for role-playing with the giants. "The Mad Chefs of Lac Anchois" certainly has more opportunity for role-playing, although I think the cloud giant brothers and their minions could be portrayed in a more sinister light; the comedy of this adventure will come through in any case. It's short enough to play through in a single session, I reckon.

Humor is used in a lot of my favorite adventures later on: the kobold Meepo in Bruce Cordell's The Sunless Citadel, the kobolds in Richard Pett's "The Devil Box" in Dungeon #109, or some of the goblins in Pathfinder #1—Rise of the Runelords: Burnt Offerings, by James Jacobs. "The Devil Box" is in fact one of my favorite Dungeon adventures, and it is hilarious. The key difference, I think, is that those adventures play for laughs creatures known to be small, weak, and relatively nonthreatening when encountered individually, so that humor adds some interest to overplayed monsters. Kobolds and goblins are supposed to be reckless, troublesome, and mischievous; the contrast between their evil ambitions and their individual weakness can be naturally funny. But the real villains in those adventures are not only sinister and threatening, but also powerful and deadly. In "The Mad Chefs of Lac Anchois", however, it is powerful monsters like giants and ogre magi that are played for laughs, and this corrodes the premise of the game: heroes are needed to combat the sinister threats of a dangerous world. Turning the dangerous monsters into jokes weakens the suspension of disbelief, rather than bolstering it.

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