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Review: Fiery Dragon Adventures
by Jody Macgregor
Just because I wasn't born in the '60s doesn't mean I can't feel nostalgic for the era when love was free, marijuana was mild and the Rolling Stones were good.
By the same token, though I wasn't a roleplayer in the early days of TSR and D&D, I still feel a certain nostalgia for an era when the game was so unplayable that independents could step in and revise the rules, along with players' expectations of the game, with ease. Admittedly, the current edition of D&D is actually playable, but the advent of the Open Gaming License once more gives other companies the chance to twist the most popular of RPGs around to their own nefarious ends.
White Wolf, in an entrepeneurial spirit, released their WotC lookalike Creature Collection before the Monster Manual came out. White Wolf fans will say they were providing a supplement players needed and WotC were slow releasing - but I'm not a White Wolf fan.
Atlas Games' Penumbra line, though still in its early stages, appears to be subverting the game from within, darkening the tone and re-applying dungeon crawl mechanics to other locations.
Necromancer Games' slogan of "3rd Edition rules, 1st Edition feel", says it all. They take a firm stance against dwarf monks and other oddball things 3E lets you do, but write decent introductory material with a slant to teaching as you play.
Alderac Entertainment Group publish 'adventure boosters', cheap booklets that give the skeleton of a scenario, assuming enough competence on the part of the DM to hang rotting flesh from its bones (oddly, many of their books rely on the simplest of fantasy tropes, the kind of thing many DMs skilled enough to run the scenario wouldn't be using anymore, but for $5.50 I shouldn't complain).
Not to mention Green Ronin, Nightshift Games, Other World Creations - and Fiery Dragon Productions, publishers of the adventures NeMoren's Vault and The Silver Summoning, reviewed herein.
For Fiery Dragon's first scenario they've gone with a dungeon bash, although they've tried to smarten it up with a fairly sensible story and a lack of gargantuan dragons residing in tiny rooms.
Appearance: The cover art is terrible. A cartoony blue umber hulk creature bursts out of a wall to menace two adventurers. Things pick up a little inside, with black and white art and a slightly sketchy anime feel which I prefer to the ubiquitous generic Elmore artwork of yore. Handouts are provided and they are nice. Colour cardboard chits of monsters and heroes are also provided, handy for those who would prefer 3E with miniatures but happen to be cheapskates. Non-colour doubles of the hero chits are provided for players to 'custom color', which makes me wonder if the book is aimed at gamers who still write in crayon. The map is clear, and neatly sub-divided into a 10' by 10' grid. The paper smells good.
Substance: James Bell, the designer, has ignored the typical fantasy character set-up for something more familiar to Call of Cthulhu players - a mysterious inheritance. The PCs are each the owners of an enigmatic silver key, handed out by Baron NeMoren decades ago, and have now been tracked down to visit the late Baron's mansion and find out what they've inherited and how it might kill them. Turns out the keys open the family treasure vault, and a dungeon-trekking we will go. Any excuse for 3-6 people to go killing and looting will sound silly to someone, but the last will and testament is a better reason than many.
Boxed text is in evidence, and lots of it. The introduction and reading of the will take up over half a page with no player interaction necessary. This is one of my pet hates in introductory supplements - assuming the players will listen to a mountain of boxed text is craziness. If you're not going to provide a summary for the improvising DM to gap-fill, at least write it on a handout the players can peruse at their leisure.
Quotes from the playtest:
"I search the shelves."
Throughout the adventure are various links to larger stories. Several blackmailers the baron locked in the vault years ago live on in undead form, providing clues about NeMoren's missing wife. A tribe of hobgoblins whose lair has overlapped with the vault are responsible for what the villagers call 'NeMoren's Curse'. The magical runesword of Sir Jaycin Threefingers is buried here, certain to be an important plot element later on in Fiery Dragon's campaign. An elven document in the final treasure horde grants forestry rights to its owner, and could disturb the political balance if discovered. Tapestries depicting historical events are everywhere.
These ties to the outside world help to create the feel of a living setting that doesn't revolve exclusively around the PCs. However, in what is essentially a beer and goblins scenario, how many players will pay attention to these things? My players didn't notice more than half of it, being locked into survival mode, not thinking further than the next battle in the way that hack and slash dungeoneering encourages. The DM may get the feeling of a breathing world, but unless this is successfully transferred to the players it isn't worth as much.
The encounter descriptions have a few sidebars, which list keywords for describing a section of the vault. This is definitely appreciated and an idea that should be stolen by other designers forthwith. Ignoring the Dungeon magazine format, combat encounters don't contain stat blocks, only hit point totals. This saves valuable space, but results in a lot of flicking back and forth, a downer for newbies and lazy bastards such as myself.
The actual encounters are generally simple and easy enough for a party of four 2nd level characters to overcome. Only one opponent is a spellcaster, and though she has an ingenious setup (magic statues who cast spells from scrolls at set times) she lacks fighter backup, and was easily slain by my players. Perhaps a little too easily, because later when they came up against the one encounter they were meant to run from (the one depicted on the cover) they stuck it out instead and two of them were gorily dismembered. The dice can be cruel mistresses.
"I lift my opponent's body on my ranseur and howl out to the
dark gods -"
A dirtload of treasure is here for the brave, even assuming the brave run away from the big scary blue thing. Although there are chests of gold and silver, most of the treasure takes the form of antique furniture, tapestries and sundry goods. An adventuring outfit with a high score in the Appraise skill and a dungeon donkey could haul up more treasure than the average DM might like, including the aforementioned deed for forestry rights, but a lot of players aren't that determined. However, Area 24: Unnattainable Treasure Room contains a horde of magic items and cash that could unbalance a campaign run by a game show host, sealed away behind immovable rock. The designer's intention is obviously to show the DM 'it really is a treasure vault!' without letting the PCs go nuts. Although an ingenious group could get in with magic or pickaxes and patience, there's no way for them to find what's in the room, and only an extremely meticulous mapmaker might guess its existence.
Challenge ratings for encounters, traps and obstacles are handily summarised in the front cover, the ghoul's challenge rating of two appears to be a compromise between the Monster Manual's value of one and the Player's Handbook estimate of three, with only cosmetic differences between the abilities in all three versions. Handily, the important stats for monsters, except speed, are listed as well which I only just noticed now. That would have been bloody useful during play. Sigh.
"If you get experience points for murder in this game, do
you get experience points for rape?"
Rounding out the book are half a dozen pregenerated PCs, unusual in their high ability scores. Even a disfigured barbarian still gets a Charisma of 10, none have scores lower. This could be an issue if the players mix pregens and their own creations, one of my players had a Cha 6 and Int 9 and would have been bothered by the strength of the pregens if they hadn't all been eaten at the end. Being inconspicuous has its good points.
All in all, if excitement and adventure come in 10 by 10 stone corridors for you, then NeMoren's Vault is worth checking out.
THE SILVER SUMMONING
Fiery Dragon's second scenario mantains an old roleplaying tradition - following an adventure set in a dungeon with an adventure in which you trek through some wilderness to get to a dungeon.
Appearance: The cover's a vast improvement, though still not a standout, resembling the interior art to a greater degree. Three of the major NPCs are depicted doing their things; an assassin scowls and holds a bow, a hero holds a magical sword that resembles an icy-pole and a sorceress either summons the raw power of magic from within . . . or has an orgasm.
Among the handouts are two maps for players, one of the starting town and the other showing the surrounding region. There's a DM map of the town as well, but with a different key put there specifically to confuse me during play. The regional map has a couple of Xs without locations next to them that an NPC draws in halfway through the scenario, so my players weren't left out of the confusion when we started. The other DM maps are thankfully free from these niggles.
Substance: The Silver Summoning opens in the frontier town of Hollobrae, where the PCs have been invited to a politically important human/elf wedding. When the bride and groom are magically poisoned, our heroes, being valiant and of 5th to 7th level, step up to save the day.
It's assumed that no self-respecting party could make it to these levels without becoming local heroes of enough renown to receive an invitation. A brief sidebar mentions a way the events of NeMoren's Vault might have created this situation, which is interesting. There's a level jump between the two scenarios, despite connections between them (a later encounter has provisions for if the party found a certain magic sword in the vault - mine didn't). It's assumed that the loose ends from the first scenario will be tidied up by the DM in such a way as to dish out the experience points, which is a plus really. The DM can personalise the interlude, and also deal with the consequences of partial failure or general plot-skipping without jeopardising the future of the published campaign, something that's always an issue when running a tighter series like The Enemy Within.
The wedding leadup leaves the characters in a small town with three hours to kill. Various NPCs are seeded around Hollobrae with rumours to impart, but the PCs must pass Gather Information checks for each. According to the Player's Handbook, a Gather Information check represents a night on the town, buying drinks and socialising to pick up the news, like a Gossip test in WFRP. Here they're used more like a reaction check, a way of avoiding roleplay in favour of diceplay. The things they have to say aren't that relevant either, one of the rumourmongers exhorts the characters to find one 'Aif Jenkins' of whom I can find no other mention at all.
The happy poisoning finally occurs, and a wilderness chase after the would-be assassin kicks in. If nobody's playing a ranger, go home now.
Chapter two begins with 'The Simple Pursuit System', a set of tables and a grid to aid the calculation of how far the prey and pursuers travel each day. Fiery Dragon obviously have a different definition of the word 'simple' to me.
The chase has a few stops, the first a detour through an abandoned gnomish mine, complete with bizarre inventions. Two of these are war machines, depicted in a handout with instructions for use - for the DM only. No mention is made of how the PCs might utilise them.
The second detour is a burnt-out mining thorp occupied by orcs in league with the assassin. These orcs are from a tribe "of the truest orc blood, able to fight unhindered in the daylight." Excuse me? Half-orcs, of the least pure blood, are not sensitive to light. Shouldn't truebloods be more sensitive?
Anyway, the orcs are in league with the assassin and his gang, but to prove they're evil they slaughter the rest of the gang (so they don't have to pay them) and ride off with the assassin (who is of the Shadowdancer prestige class rather than the Assassin prestige class for some reason). This is a little confusing for the players if they travel slow and arrive to find a street full of bodies, assume their prey are all dead and head home.
If they don't they'll meet Cuhulain, a druid on a mission to warn a besieged dwarfhold that it is threatened by another attack, an evil sorceress who wishes to steal a powerful item they hold. Discovering the characters' mission, he offers to trade. Cuhulain will head to a druid citadel to score some antidote, the character are to warn the dwarves. The scene is played out with a lot of boxed text so corny it's almost impossible not to read it in a William Shatner voice. Behold: "So decide, as nightfall descends. Which path do you follow?"
Since leaving town, the players haven't had a chance to make many decisions. Even the mini-dungeon crawl through the mine was basically a straight line. Now, they get to make a decision. To enter the dwarfhold, they can travel through a canyon or take a shortcut through a wood. Though I appreciate an opportunity for exercising judgement (no matter how arbitrary), it's a shame if they choose the dull wood over the canyon which is the highlight of the scenario.
The canyon is filled with Tund Dust, a kind of magical uranium not unlike Warpstone in WFRP (I apologise for another barely relevant mention of that game). The characters fight a three-headed troll here, then discover that it was really a mutated boy who killed and ate his parents, their heads later growing out of his shoulders. Spooky.
Whichever way they travel the scenario takes them to the dwarfhold, which they enter with a magical talisman the druid gave them, discovering that some of the orcs have already broken in and begun rampant destruction. Here the designers are back on firmer territory, with a simple dungeon crawl lightened up by encounters with a few desperately struggling groups of dwarves. A new kind of monster is introduced; the mercury elemental - think Terminator 2. Now the Silver part of the Summoning makes sense.
The mercury elementals are encountered battling it out with the dwarf king, and the PCs are obliged to step in. Whether they save the king or not, things are arranged so that they get his talisman (which is part of a set with the one they already hold) and head down a level for the final battle with the evil sorceress and the assassin, whom it turns out was working with her, thus tying up the loose ends neatly. She's looking for a magical containment unit full of radioactive Tund Dust, but only has one of the three talismans needed to open its hiding place. Surprise surprise, the characters now have the other two. So really, the best thing they could do is bugger off to make sure the bad guys don't get hold of them, but it's assumed they'll wade in and make merry slaughter.
A lot of the things I've been kvetching about in The Silver Summoning are really minor flaws which I barely noticed in my first read-through. But later, and especially during play, they add up. A few of these kind of mistakes are forgivable, but the The Silver Summoning is riddled with them, hugely increasing your preparation time as DM if you want to fix them all.
In the sudden glut of dungeon adventures since the release of D&D3E, NeMoren's Vault stands out as a little classier than most. With The Silver Summoning, Fiery Dragon Productions overstretched themselves. It's sloppily edited, poorly playtested, and anticlimactic. They probably should have stuck to the dungeon crawls.
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