Tuesday, 8 May 2018

[REVIEW] Masks of Lankhmar

Masks of Lankhmar (2015)
by Michael Curtis
Published by Goodman Games
1st level

Warning: Severe ending spoilers
Heists are hard to capture in the form of a D&D module. A party of adventurers is usually not well equipped with the skills to pull off a smooth, silent burglary; someone is inevitably too loud, too clumsy, or there are just too many people in the way. City-based heists also have many variables which can lead to unpredictable cascading events, or branch off in ways you can’t fully cover in the scenario without making it bloated and unmanageable. In play, this calls for a loose interpretation of the rules; and in writing, compromises between text and suggestion, written module and improvisation. When D&D thievery works, it is exhilarating, fun, and full of unlikely victories and dramatic reversals.

Masks of Lankhmar, introductory module to Goodman Games’ yet-unpublished Lankhmar supplement, errs on the side of being a sweet slice of nothing. There is a superb plot in the background that’d make for a hell of a Leiber story: it has intrigue, dark irony, urban gloom and a hokey ending that’s completely Leiberesque, but there is not much of an adventure inside it. It evokes something from what makes Lankhmar so fascinating, but it is limited as an RPG scenario.

A Map Illustrating
the Problem
Briefly, Masks follows the fate of a long-gone religious order who have left behind a bunch of valuable masks… and the characters stumble on their trail in a heist gone bad. Thus, the module is divided into an in medias res beginning (an interrupted burglary in the mansion of a rich magnate), an intermission for information gathering, the recovery of the masks in the order’s now crumbling (but hardly vacant) temple, and finally the denouement. It is mostly a railroad in the segments covered in detail. There are branches here and there in how the players can get through a problem (such as escaping the magnate’s manor), but the action usually takes place in small physical locales where you either can’t go anywhere but forward, or you can go places but only forward matters (since the scenario doesn’t cover the other places). There are no side areas, no alternate approaches, no unlikely discoveries, and the progression of events is mostly preordained. The beginning heist is a linear sequence of five encounters taking place in three small rooms, followed by an escape with three alternative paths through a not much larger location. The main adventure area is a complex place, but only one encounter (to get through all the complex scenery which barely plays a role), followed by seven sequential encounters on the Adventure Express.

Masks of Lankhmar, ironically, becomes the most interesting in the areas it does not try to cover. Following the trail of the initial clues can be fun and open-ended if the GM drags it out a little, and the multiple ending possibilities tie up the heist in ways that establish the characters’ standing with different city factions, and lead to interesting new adventures. There are proper consequences to the players’ actions! It also shows evidence of imagination in the rooms and situations it sets up. Golden masks glittering through the funereal shrouds of the dead. A posh party thrown by an upstart who wants to get into high society. The Thieves’ Guild trailing the characters. A slum tenement filled with the dregs of society. Lankhmar’s soot and filth, glamour and decadence are all on display, and some of the encounters are pretty good – although in a severely lacking structure which inhibits the players in properly interacting with them.

The module serves its purpose of getting the characters together (in Lankhmar RPG terms, this is called “the Meet”) and launching a campaign. On the other hand, it is small and very limited in scope, while simultaneously feeling overwritten, with the boxed text and background information overwhelming the action. I don’t usually review production values (life and experience have left me bitter and cynical in this regard), but this booklet’s layout bothered me. Nothing wrong with the two-column solution, but leaving in orphans and stat blocks which necessitate page flipping is lazy, especially for a pro publisher.

I vacillated on Masks of Lankhmar’s rating, and gave it three stars on the strength of its imagery, and its evocation of mood. However, taken on its own – pure gameplay – it is severely lacking. Decision-making is superficial, player agency is mostly illusory. Of course, not every module has to have the same level of player agency, but this felt unnecessarily stifling. The same general storyline could be reconstructed as a much more open adventure, and re-written as a more efficient yet equally expressive piece of writing. There is a philosophy which suggests intro adventures should be small and unassuming, while explaining everything to the GM in detail. Personally, I’d rather see the exact opposite: intro adventures which offer GM advice economically, and offer the full, complex game experience in a newbie-friendly package.

The adventure credits its playtesters, and it had been through play on three conventions.

Rating: *** / *****

1 comment:

  1. Heists are captured since time immemorial in D&D modules... they're just called dungeon crawls. Replace the castle guards with the big beefy monsters you just don't want to arouse and lo and behold, you have the heist (with the inevitable fuckup, betrayal and bloodshed which are tropes of the genre as well).