Monday, April 13, 2015

Eyes to See You

I always liked the way that Earthdawn explained its dungeons as apocalypse shelters now overrun by the same soul-eating monsters from which the former inhabitants were hiding. I'm not one of those people who demands a rational explanation for everything in a fantasy world -- sometimes fantasy should be allowed to be fantasy -- but I appreciated the effort.

In 13th Age some dungeons are alive. They are like parasites or cancers, burrowing up from some unknown underworld and breaking out on the surface to spew monsters into the world; the fact that some have what look like wooden doors -- but aren't -- and are populated by what look like kobolds or goblins -- but aren't -- is all part of their strange and inexplicable nature. The dungeons just are. It's sort of the opposite approach to Earthdawn; "a wizard did it" on a greater scale, with a bit of Lovecraft chucked in for added gribbly flavour.

The average living dungeon erupts into the surface world and aside from some regeneration of damage or perhaps a small rearrangement of its internal structure it stays as it is, a violent idiot spitting out monsters until some adventurers delve into it and destroy its heart.

The Stone Thief is different. It is intelligent, it bears grudges, it moves, and it is hungry. It pops up to devour a castle, a town, or even another dungeon, and then digs back into the ground to appear somewhere else, often thousands of miles away. What a great idea.

Spoilers follow.

Eyes of the Stone Thief is a mid to high level campaign for 13th Age that was I believe pitched as "what if Moby Dick were a dungeon?"; the bulk of the 360 pages is devoted to a description of the dungeon itself while the rest of the book discusses the kind of campaign you can construct around it, complete with ideas for sidequests, hunting the dungeon, and multiple solutions to the apocalyptic threat it poses.

It's a big book but it's not as intimidating as I thought it would be, because it's written with a light touch and plenty of wit, and it is well organised. Monster statistics are included in the area in which they appear, which does increase the page count when they turn up in multiple sections but I imagine will be quite handy at the table, and each part of the complex is illustrated with an excerpt from the larger dungeon map so it's always clear which text is referring to which section. Well almost; there are a couple of places where it seems that smaller subsections were supposed to be labelled and the labels are missing, but it's not too difficult to match the picture and text.

I can imagine that the maps will be a sticking point for some players as they tend to show the general arrangement of the most important locations on that level, rather than showing each and every room and corridor; for those who prefer mapping out every five-foot square there will be some work required to translate the dungeon to that style of play. I don't think it would be an insurmountable task but as a result the dungeon has less out-of-the-book utility for players of that stripe.

On the plus side, the focus on the important locations means that a lot of work has gone into making each of them interesting and exciting. Of course, some areas are better than others but not one of them is dull and some of them are so good that it's frustrating knowing that the players will have to fight and puzzle their way through umpteen levels before they get to them.

Here are some examples. If you're going to play -- and I know my group reads the blog -- stop reading now.

Early on -- although the dungeon can rearrange its own levels -- there's the Gauntlet, a patchwork of monsters and traps, including a minotaur that's both immortal and in agony because the magic sword stuck in its heart can kill death itself, a lava jumping puzzle, and a suicidal medusa at the centre of a maze with invisible walls. Great fun.

Later on there's part of a swallowed library, complete with undead librarians that are polite and helpful unless the adventurers are noisy, killer books that have what is more or less a paralysis ability but one that's protrayed in a fun metagamey way, and a sneaky WFRP reference.

Nearby there's an ancient dwarf dungeon that's been assimilated by the Thief, and it's so old that it's presented in the AD&D1 adventure format, complete with a Futura typeface, boxed text, and Russ Nicholson art.

Later still the adventurers may discover a saw shau sagwa shugaw sguhaw fish person temple at the heart of which is an incomplete demonic ritual; if the player-characters finish the ceremony it opens a gateway to hell in the guts of the dungeon and that could be helpful in defeating the Stone Thief, but on the other hand they are opening a gateway to hell. What the campaign may lack in left-right choices it makes up for it with lots of moral decisions like this one.

There are plenty of factions within the dungeon too, including a cult that worships the dungeon and wants to guide it to apotheosis, an orc army sent to capture the dungeon but that decided to live within it instead, a witch who allowed the dungeon to devour her mansion so she could study it from within, and of course the Stone Thief itself. All are dangerous -- even the friendly ones -- and all have their own plans and goals, some of which clash with each other, creating plenty of opportunity for sneaky players to create alliances and engage in all sorts of political intrigue backstabbing, and that's before the influence of 13th Age's icons is taken into account. In short, there is plenty for the players to do within the dungeon even when they're bored of killing things.

(Ha ha ha. They will never get bored of killing things.)

Eyes of the Stone Thief is quite different from any other megadungeon I've seen but then a traditional approach wouldn't have been the best example of what makes 13th Age different from other Dungeons and Dragons variants.That said there's nothing revolutionary here, nothing that will make you think "all dungeons should be like this forever", but what you do get is a lot of well-written content, well organised, and with lots of good ideas; almost every section has some room or monster or trap that makes me want to unleash it on my players right this second, and if that's not a sign of a good adventure, I don't know what is.

It also features a manticore that thinks it's a cow. You can't go wrong with that.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Water Polo?

Brighton has a reputation for being one of the more liberal and progressive places in the country. Well, it probably has more of a reputation for being full of web designers and artisan coffee shops nowadays but we do have the country's only Green MP -- for the next month at least -- so close enough.

It's a bit strange then that our local newspaper, The Argus, is a vile pamphlet full of hatred directed at the Gypsies/foreigners/Muslims/drug addicts who are plotting to destroy the peace and happiness of our town, plus football news.

The Argus is also known for the somewhat surreal turn taken by some of its advertising boards. Here are a couple of recent highlights: