Friday, 18 August 2017

[REVIEW] The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad

The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad (2016)
by Carl Bussler and Eric Hoffman
Published by Stormlord Publishing

The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad
Sometimes, the title alone sells it. If we thought about modules whose titles scream “Look at me! I offer riches, danger, and exotic adventure!”, The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad would be among my top contenders. It captures something essential about swords & sorcery, and wherever Zadabad is, you could easily imagine Conan trampling its crumbling cupolas under his sandaled feet. Of course, not all promises like this have been kept. I have mentioned before how swords & sorcery modules often end up disappointing, heavy on the mood and setup, and light on the actual content (this is a separate issue from my general complaint about under-ambitious modules). Fortunately, Treasure Vaults is both better and more substantial than the previously reviewed contenders.

The module, available for the DCC RPG and Swords & Wizardry (44 and 64 pages, respectively), describes a tropical island inhabited by native tribes, dangerous beasts, pirates and castaways, and dotted by natural hazards as well as the decaying tombs of an ancient civilisation. Island adventures are a rewarding candidate for sandbox gaming: they combine freedom of movement with the natural limitations of the surrounding seas, and offer a modularity that lets you place them in any corner of your game world. They tend to work very well by letting the players instigate all sorts of trouble, with the understanding that “what goes on the island, stays on the island” – you don’t need to consider the impacts of a small war on six different kingdoms and city-states.

Treasure Vaults is a mini-sandbox with 22 detailed encounters, including settlements, standalone lairs, ruins and five smallish dungeons (from 7 to 14 keyed areas each). It has a heavy, reasonably well-developed exploration focus. Hardship is a constant element that reinforces the feeling of venturing into the unknown: scarce equipment, environmental challenges and custom-made encounter charts with megafauna, tribesmen and man-eating crocodiles make getting around a hazardous undertaking, without turning the experience into a brutal and fruitless slog. Some locales are reasonably safe, but even the best of them have their hidden threats and complications. The most probable “home base” of the adventurers, a former plague colony is a particularly good launching pad for expeditions into the dense jungles, offering just enough intrigue to keep the players watching their back (or regret not watching it). The island’s tribes can be a source of hospitality and mortal danger (or both), and the same can be said of the eccentric loners who have made this place their home. This works very well.

The fixed encounters (and three sample tombs which can be placed freely on the hex map) are about the right combination of brevity and detail, and heavy on adventuring potential. They are successful at conjuring the spirit of the adventure pulps they draw on, and translating them into game challenges (the major stumbling block for S&S modules). They are at their best when they deal with the human element, where the authors’ imagination really shines: communities with their own bizarre customs, interests and sets of behaviour are always interesting to explore, and Treasure Vaults delivers this in spades. Perhaps more could have been said about the ways conflicts between various groups might develop, but this will probably be remedied in play: there are many ways hostilities may break out or new alliances get forged, all thanks to the actions of the characters. Likewise, some of the more weird encounters are quite ingenious, requiring resourceful problem-solving. Sometimes, the module feels too much like a low-level sandbox, lacking the “oh shit!” moments offered by a few really vicious or formidable challenges, but that’s a minor complaint about an otherwise very good work.

The mini-dungeons are slightly less impressive. They have striking architectural features, a strong sense of place, and some of the encounters are good, but they also come with the customary problems of old school mini-dungeons. They are small, linear, and do not have the same degree of invention that made it into the wilderness encounters. This is a pity because the rest is so good. More could have been written about Zadabad proper, which is left underdeveloped along with the whole Valley of Shubba Nil. Nothing much is happing there aside from random encounters and random ruin finds. For that matter, the fabled treasure vaults also feel a tad anti-climactic, no larger than and no different from the linear mini-dungeons which had preceded them. A few traps, a boss-fight and some treasure is what we get instead of something genuinely complex and fascinating. These are “modules within a module”, so one does not expect something on the scale of Dwellers of the Forbidden City (or my personal gold standard, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan), but I could not help but feel just a little cheated.

That being said, The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad is an interesting, well-realised sandbox module – it is the quality other sandbox modules should aspire to. The DCC elements shine through a bit in the S&W version (which I purchased), but there is nothing in there that wouldn’t work in a Swords & Wizardry or D&D campaign.

No playtesters were listed for this adventure.


Rating: **** / *****

2 comments:

  1. I wanted to review this for ages, but it seems I won't have to. I have a soft spot for Zadabad, because it reminds me my first homebrew sandbox.

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    1. It reminds me of The Temple of Pazuzu (which is admittedly much less polished and much more ready to eat your face on a wrong move).

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