Monday 11 May 2015

Review: "The Tomb of Gardag the Strange" by Shane Ward

The Tomb of Gardag the Strange is a recently published Pay What You Want module for four to six third level characters.  Shane Ward (3 Toadstools Publishing) wrote the module for Labyrinth Lord, although it could be used with other OSR games or the classic RPGs that inspired them.

Let me start out by saying that this is an endearing project.  It was clearly written by someone who has a lot of fun playing RPGs and wants others to derive enjoyment from his work.  To the extent that payment is requested, I think it's fair to assume that Ward is only seeking to cover the costs involved in taking his DM notes and converting them into a product that someone else could use.  But that's where the problem begins.  However much I want to like The Tomb of Gardag the Strange, it hasn't finished the transition from the notes someone took to help themselves to a product designed for another party to use.  Ward has alluded to this on his blog in response to other reviews, suggesting that he "may have had it in mind that the adventure could be used as a funnel" (though presumably with 1st-level characters, rather than 0th-level as in Dungeon Crawl Classics).

The download is sixteen pages, plus the fairly handsome cover pictured.  There's a well-drawn map, and although Ward didn't take the time to identify his symbols they are fairly conventional choices ("box" doors, "S" secret doors, etc.).  A few paragraphs set up the background of the tomb in a "once upon a time" style.  Ward leaves it a bit open as to whether the PCs are to be hired to retrieve the remains of a dead hero or just bust in to get Gardag's "huge stock pile of treasure" - this is good! - but also doesn't give the DM any details about what sort of reward would be on offer for the former task.  No area map or details for a nearby settlement are provided.

Turning to the design of the adventure itself, I found the key very crowded.  Depending on what counts as a room, only about a quarter of the rooms are "empty" and there are many more traps than I would have expected.  This isn't necessarily bad but it does encourage a certain mindset among the players that they should be constantly on the lookout for traps.  Normally the desire to check for traps is counter-balanced with the threat of random encounters, but despite the monsters of the Tomb having a definite theme, there's no special wandering monster table - or even an instruction to use one of the tables in Labyrinth Lord.  If it wasn't for a throwaway reference to one of the empty rooms being "maybe a good place for a random encounter", I might have thought that the Tomb was a Special module with no wandering monsters.

Moreover, the place is fairly deadly and has very little treasure.  The "huge stock pile of treasure" seems to have been spent on making a deathtrap rather than adorning the resting place of Gardag the Strange, and what loot there is has been extremely well-guarded.  It's possible for a party to emerge from the Tomb richer than they entered, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear of the opposite.  There is one nice magical item (the weapon used to slay Gardag) and perhaps this is worth running a few risks, but I can't help feeling that the introduction is a bit misleading.  In fairness, the whimsical contents of "The Trinket Room" did make me smile!

There are also technical problems.  Ward makes a reference to "critical hits" (not part of the Labyrinth Lord rules) and several times instructs the DM on the consequences of a few rounds of PC activity, despite the LL round being just ten seconds.  Less troubling, but still notable, is the heavy use of the optional Ability check rules.  (I found it especially strange that the characters need to make a Wisdom check to decipher the runes at the entryway, and that their knowledge of languages is irrelevant.)  Finally, there are some merely sloppy touches, such as references to the "Good" alignment.  Under Labyrinth Lord, these should be "Lawful", but I doubt anyone would be that confused.

Beyond the scenario material, The Tomb of Gardag the Strange devotes two pages to pre-generated characters.  Unfortunately, these characters are 1st-level (as noted above, Ward has offered some explanation for this) and have more problems besides.  There are errors with terminology, with "Warrior", "Wizard", and "Good" used instead of "Fighter", "Magic-User", and "Lawful".  "Lady Ravaaga", a Cleric, seems to have two 1st-level spells prepared - or else her deity only permits her the use of two spells.  Either situation would be highly unusual and no explanation is offered.  Abilities are listed in the order S/C/W/Ch/D/I, and although this is not much of a problem I'm not sure why it happened that way.

Better is a page of "Interesting Henchmen".  It would be a bit more helpful to have the statistical information attached to these personalities, but the quick descriptions are colourful enough and give some insight into the kind of game that Ward likes.  I suspect that when The Tomb of Gardag the Strange is run by its author, it's quite an offbeat and entertaining place - it's a pity that Ward didn't put more of his sense of humour into the dungeon description.

In its current state, I have to rate The Tomb of Gardag the Strange a 2/5.  Although the scenario is playable, it requires some repairs and set-up.  I would particularly caution a novice DM against trying to use this module, as it tends to assume knowledge about the game.  However, I encourage Shane Ward to keep writing modules.  It strikes me that he is doing so for very good reasons, and there is some promise in his work.  My main piece of advice to him (and indeed, to any aspiring module writer) is to shanghai someone from outside his gaming group to read, or better yet play his modules and report back before they go to print.

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