Sunday, 30 July 2017

[REVIEW] Tomb of the Serpent Kings

[REVIEW] Tomb of the Serpent Kings
by Skerples

Tomb of the Actual Production Values Update
Tomb of the Serpent Kings is a freely distributed 15-page introductory adventure module found on the Coins and Scrolls blog, which manages to outclass just about all the 15-page introductory adventure modules I have bought on RPGNow with real money. It was apparently conceived as a tutorial to introduce players to old school gaming, and presents a three-level, 52-room dungeon filled with encounters that aim to teach lessons in good dungeoneering. On a first read, this idea can sound terrible (tutorial areas have a deservedly bad reputation), but it all works out pretty damn well – although not without problems. It is a simple product with sparse production values: two-column layout, a decentish map, and a few pieces of art by Scrap Princess in that characteristic scratchy-creepy style.

Why is it good? It is not easy writing introductory adventures, and I believe most modern examples are done badly. If generic sixteen-room lair dungeons in eighteen-page packages are the bane of old school publishing, this goes doubly for intro modules. They try to hold back and limit themselves so the players don’t get overwhelmed, and in that exchange, manage to kill off the “wow” factor which makes tabletop gaming pop. They show you the goblin lairs but not the humanoid-filled ravines where you will be massacred if you don’t learn caution and cunning. They give you the abandoned ruins and evil brigands without the crayfish in the moat that will neatly cut your first character in half, or the lurking shadow mage who will suck the life right out of you when you infiltrate his lair. But most of all, they don’t give you the grandeur, complexity and depth of the full tabletop experience. You can’t do much in them, accomplish much in them, and they end after a few measly encounters. The players get crippleware, and then they wonder if this is it before they go back to whatever they were doing. Not here. This is real.

Tomb of the Serpent Kings does that thing introductory dungeon crawls should do, but usually don’t: put the fear of God, the wonder of the unknown, and the feeling of well-earned accomplishment into the players’ hearts. It feels like descending into a dark and odd place where a lot of things will try to kill you if you are not careful, but you will be rich and powerful if you pull it off. And that is the real thing. There is a shortish entrance level that has a few stray traps and a little treasure, and then BAM!, a deathtrap that can kill a careless and unlucky character in one ugly *splat*. It is on! That’s when everyone at the table starts paying attention.

What follows is a tomb that becomes increasingly more open, more hazardous and more strange as you progress deeper into it. It deals in potent imagery. A chasm that falls away into untold depths; a pool of filthy waters with treasure and a terrible danger lurking at the bottom; a broken columned hall haunted by a chained and hungry basilisk. It goes deep, and it is large enough to feel mysterious. The text is to the point without losing its flavour. It is good minimalism. Brief boxed text explains the purpose of the various areas, and there is even a quick reference with the most important descriptive and functional features (more on this later). This is the right combination of colour and solid, functional game design, and the right mixture of exploration, confrontation and interaction.

While exploring the complex, the players get acquainted with typical dungeon features like traps, intuitive puzzles, open-ended problem solving, pattern recognition, recognising repeating elements, environmental hazards and the like. By the end of it, they will probably learn to act as a capable team of explorers. The loot is often hidden in places where you feel clever after discovering it (it is a fairly modest amount, and seems to use the silver standard – use a multiplier if you are playing straightforward D&D). There is varied combat with a roster of interesting enemies; from undead to dungeon fauna to intelligent opponents. There are two boss battles which feel fairly JRPG-inspired (with special signature moves too!), but are actually fairly nicely integrated into the old-school D&D experience.

Excuse me Sir, do you have time to talk
about our lord and saviour, béarnaise sauce?
Enemy design is one of the module’s main draws beyond exploration. You can study and exploit the behaviour of the dungeon’s inhabitants to your advantage. Even the unintelligent ones have interesting behavioural patterns, and the intelligent ones open up opportunities for interesting alliances and creepy bargains. The monsters are described very well; full of personality. They all have a “Wants” entry in their stat blocks which is a lot of fun: Skeleton Jellies want “to squish heads and make more skeleton jellies”, while Fungus Goblins – described as having a “texture like baked potato mixed with white glue” – want “a king, food, shiny objects, more food”. It is simple and neat, and always colourful.

However, this is not a flawless module, neither on its own nor as an introductory scenario. For all the good content, the meat-and-bones of the dungeon is presented in a really bad way. There has been a lot of bellyaching in recent years about breaking the confines of the “boring”, “limited”, “user-unfriendly” standard location key, and coming up with new ways of embracing the new possibilities of modern layout, computer screens or what have you, but there is a good reason the original format became a standard. The alternative seen here looks like a failed 70s experiment in trying to describe a dungeon. It is a mess.

The dungeon key is written in a stream of consciousness format that is less cleanly demarcated than the location key (e.g. “Rooms (12) through (16) are tomb chambers. … The passage to room (12) contains a pressure plate”). This could work, but instead, part of the information you need to use the module is found in the “quick reference” section at the end of the module, and it is not all duplicated in the main text. Then you get to the monsters, whose stats are counter-intuitively in neither of the two, but yet another part of the appendix. Don’t forget that you also have to handle the map. It is a logistical nightmare trying to pay attention to four things at once (this does not yet include the players), and I pity any beginning GM who tries to learn running games with this package. In practice, as I was reading the document, I was either constantly flipping through the pages or missing/forgetting important information in the quick ref section. It is plain uncomfortable. I have no idea what would have happened in a chaotic, high-pressure actual play situation where you must divide your attention among a table full of people.

As “user interface”, this experiment fails utterly. As something for newbies, it is inexcusable. You can alleviate some of it by separating the map/quick ref sheet from the main document (par for course in the age of printouts), but still – why? It creates a lot of problems without solving any. You could easily incorporate the quick ref information into the room entries, maybe even as a standard “at a glance” section, and you’d get a lean, functional package. And of course, the monster stats could also go there.

The lettering on the map is really bad, using an inexplicably hard to read font. The map itself looks good with solid, clean draftsmanship, but it could use much more in the way of cartographic symbols – columns, rubble, statues, the works. This is a minor issue compared to organisational matters, but it is there. A random encounter table is hidden in the back as an afterthought. It needs a little more signposting, because it is a good one.

The suggestion to reskin the adventure with a different theme if you don’t like serpent-men is puzzling, precisely because how serpentish the place feels. Why substitute something if you have achieved a specific mood so well? (Granted, I am a sucker for serpent-men, and have been ever since I ran The Sword of Rhiannon, which blew my mind after the much more laid-back Lord of the Rings.)

All in all, this is a gem in the rough. Very shiny, very rough in some spots. It is released as “version 2.0”, and it may receive future updates – I hope it does, because if it cleans up some of the user-unfriendly aspects, it has the potential to become a very solid adventure that also does a good job at what it sets out to do, all for free. It also proves you don’t have to run a Kickstarter and hire an art department to create something good. You can just go out and do it. And that’s the spirit.

Rating: *** / *****

1 comment:

  1. Hi! I read your review and agree with all of it.
    I just wanted to inform you that a new version 3.0 has been released, and probably has fixed some of the layout problems (I never read the 2.0 version).
    Though, the quick reference is still at the end with some information that is missing from the main descriptions.
    That's what I like the less.