Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 5 March 2010

Not Wearing Me Down...

It is 2010 and while Dungeons & Dragons is alive and well, and the Old School Renaissance keeps a bullseye lantern shone firmly on the game as it was played more than thirty years ago, the “Deathtrap Dungeon” as a concept is dead and gone. Written to test the players’ ingenuity and resourcefulness to the point of death and beyond, the “Deathtrap Dungeon” is filled with puzzles and traps which when combined with a seeming random factor makes it a challenge that is almost impossible to beat. Almost as soon as the first “Deathtrap Dungeon” appeared, it reached its apotheosis in the form of S1, Tomb of Horrors, a 1978 dungeon from the pen of Gary Gygax. In the years since, this module has been reprinted several times, received a boxed sequel in the form of Return to the Tomb of Horrors, achieved legendary status, and appeared at number three in Dungeon #116’s “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time” (November, 2004). Its reputation though, remains that of a “Killer” dungeon, an “Unfair” dungeon, an “Unplayable” dungeon, so why would anyone want to visit the concept thirty years on?

The simple answer is because they believe that there is blood still to be got from the concept, if not from the adventurers. Such a believer is James Raggi IV, who already having received much acclaim with his last scenario, Death, Frost, Doom, has turned his attention to the Deathtrap Dungeon. Published through Raggi's own Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the result is The Grinding Gear, a sixteen page affair designed not for tenth to fourteenth levels as was S1, Tomb of Horrors, but for a party of between three and eight characters of first through fourth levels. Let me make that a little more explicit. The Grinding Gear is a Deathtrap Dungeon that can be played by first level characters.

With The Grinding Gear, Raggi has set himself one heck of a challenge if only because it is designed for first level characters. The point is that it is all too easy to design a dungeon that will kill anyone exploring it, especially if they are first level, and even easier if the dungeon has been laced with deadly traps and puzzles. It takes ingenuity to design not just a Deathtrap Dungeon, but a Deathtrap Dungeon that with some cunning, skill, and resourcefulness upon the part of the players their first level characters will survive.

That The Grinding Gear manages to pull this is tribute to the author’s design. The dungeon’s traps are deadly, not always lethal, and there is not the sense of random malice that pervades the typical Deathtrap Dungeon, including the original S1, Tomb of Horrors. Indeed, many if not most of the puzzles and traps found within the confines of The Grinding Gear can be avoided or circumvented by the wary player. As with any Deathtrap Dungeon, it pays to take care when playing through this “Little Tomb of Horrors,” but this has to be the very first dungeon for which it pays to take notes when playing!

The scenario begins with the adventurers on the road when they come across a strange tableau. Three abandoned and dilapidated buildings – an inn, some stables, and a chapel – stand around a statue itself completely surrounded by the bodies of Orcs and Goblins. This scene marks the first of many traps laid for the adventurers by the absent innkeeper, whose high regard for the courage and cleverness displayed by their kind in dealing with the unorthodox threats to be found in the average Dungeons & Dragons world is only matched by his disdain for their obvious greed, and more recently by his desire for revenge. His daughter fell in love with an adventurer and eloped, the pair of them dying a few later months while exploring an ancient tomb. The innkeeper’s revenge would be pure artifice, would allow him to indulge his penchant for engineering, and would play upon what he saw as the greatest strengths and the greatest weaknesses of the adventuring party. He would design a dungeon purely to test both and reward the clever and the careful, but punish the foolish and the unwary. And when one party had explored the extent of the labyrinth he built below his old inn – or died in the process – he would return, reset the complex, and await the entrance of another set of adventurers...

What lies below is a two level dungeon, consisting of twenty-five locations on the upper level and twenty on the lower. The adventurers will find few monsters, but clues and hints aplenty, almost as if the builder is taunting them. Which he is.

Physically, The Grinding Gear is an attractive package. It comes as a sixteen page digest booklet with not one, not two, but three cardboard covers! Inside the outer cover can be found the map of the inn and its immediate environs. The maps for both levels of the dungeon are done white on black on the outer side of the middle cover, while on its reverse can be found a discussion of the reasoning behind some of the dungeon’s locations. Essentially the equivalent of the dungeon designer’s notes, and by that I mean James Raggi IV, not the ex-innkeeper. The outer side of the inner cover shows a cratered landscape and has a player handout on the inside. The booklet itself only has the one piece of interior art, a rather effective illustration of a dungeon room. The writing is more technical and thus drier than Death, Frost, Doom, but that can be explained by the need to explain all of those traps and puzzles.

The Grinding Gear is lacking in two ways. The first is in the absence of back cover blurb. It is available at more than one friendly local gaming store after all, and a blurb would help sell it to the casual browser. The second is in the form of a sequel. Raggi states that there will be no “official” sequel detailing the activities of the ex-innkeeper behind the dungeon, which is not only a pity, but also a missed opportunity. The fact that the scenario’s antagonist is kept entirely off screen for the whole of the adventure is sure to annoy the average player who will want to find out who was behind it all and then take his revenge. It begs a sequel and I beg Raggi to change his mind.

There is no denying just how clever and how concise Raggi has been with The Grinding Gear. To create and fit a complete Deathtrap Dungeon in sixteen pages, to refresh and enliven a moribund concept not just for low level characters, at all takes both an economy of the imagination and an economy of the technical. The technical nature of the scenario does bleed over into the background, so that the adventurers’ motives for exploring the complex are actually those for playing Dungeons & Dragons in the first place. The result is that as assured a piece of design as The Grinding Gear is, it lacks the mood and the flavour seen in the author’s previous scenarios. Nevertheless, The Grinding Gear is a delightful design that lets the Dungeon Master spill fresh blood over an old concept.