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

Friday, 24 September 2010

Daft Insidious?

New publisher Die Cast Games recently caused no little controversy in August of 2010 with the publication of its first module, TSR1 Insidious. Not because of its content, though I shall of course come to that, but because of its “trade dress.” By that I mean the physical elements of a product’s design, packaging, and labelling that identify a product and make it recognisable to the purchaser. With TSR1 Insidious, what Die Cast Games has done is not create a trade dress of its own, but rather ape that of the scenarios published in early to mid 1980s for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition, best typified by the Desert of Desolation series or I6, Ravenloft. Although it is not an exact copy, this aping also includes the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons logo of the period, the main element missing being the use of an ordinary ampersand rather than the dragon-headed ampersand that we know of old. It continues on the inside of the card cover with its blue on white cartography, and while the layout of the booklet is more open than the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons modules of the mid to late 1980s, it certainly evokes a sense of nostalgia.

The issue is whether or not the use of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in this manner violates the terms of Wizards of the Coast’s Open Gaming License, and if so, does it jeopardise the future of OGL upon which the Old School movement depends? On this point I am not qualified to comment – my qualification not being in the law and definitely not Intellectual Property law, but the publisher certainly compounds the look with the “TSR” code and front cover illustration, which happens to be by artist Jeff Easley, who contributed innumerable covers to titles published by TSR. The controversy was such that for subsequent printings the module has been re-coded as DCG1-Insidious.

The matter of its appearance aside, TSR1 Insidious or rather DCG1-Insidious, is a standalone module designed for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to be played by party of three to six characters of between first and third level. It is set in the small town of Sheridan Springs, whose peace has been shattered by strange goings on. Creatures have been seen moving in the woods; townsfolk have gone missing; and weird sounds have been heard coming from its cemetery and the ruins of the manor that stand to its North. Answering a call for help from the local sheriff, the party quickly arrives in Sheridan Springs and soon learns more from its inhabitants. That the townsfolk has not elected a mayor since he blew himself and part of his manor up, that the evil is growing, and that it all could have something to do with a stone obelisk recently installed at the centre of the village.

Apart from encounters with orcs and undead around the village, the characters will soon find themselves moving onto the manor itself. Each of the twenty-five locations that make up the manor are all well described, each entry being neatly laid out with the descriptive text clearly marked. At this point it is difficult to write any more about the adventure without anything being given away, but then again, there is very little in the way of secrets to be revealed. There are creatures in the woods; strange things are going on in the cemetery; the manor does need investigating; and the obelisk does have something to deal with it all.

Physically, apart from the obvious “trade dress” issue, DCG1-Insidious is a nice looking book. It benefits from being on brilliantly white paper and from Jeff Easley’s artwork throughout. The text also benefits from a slightly more open layout, although that does mean that at thirty-two pages, the module is longer than it needs to be. The module as a whole needs another edit too.

One interesting design aspect of DCG1-Insidious is that it is written “Ready-to-Roll.” What this means is that you get the full stats for each and every creature, including their THACO and XP values, as well as page references for abilities, spells, and more from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. This is all indeed very useful, and is bound to make the running of the scenario much easier and with relatively little preparation. The module also comes with eight ready to play adventurers, although half of them are of third level, while only one of them is of first level.

There is no denying that DCG1-Insidious looks good. Yet all that pales into insignificance when the module itself cannot match the appearance and style that the publisher aspires to. The issue with the adventure is that it is neither all that interesting nor all that inspiring. We have seen this set up time and time again, and DCG1-Insidious never comes within sight of its most obvious inspiration, the classic U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. Where that adventure had atmosphere and depth to its story, DCG1-Insidious has none. Worse, it sets up a situation in the form of the mysterious obelisk, and never addresses how this situation could be resolved. Certainly, there is room in the booklet for the author to do so, but that page is wasted to a quarter page’s list of common abbreviations.

To be fair, Die Cast Games has done a good job on the look of its first module. It only needs to be tightened up slightly for the next one. The concept and the writing for that next module not only needs to be tighter, it needs to be if not original, then at the very least, more interesting and more thoughtful. There are just too many good Old School Renaissance scenarios for DCG1-Insidious and Die Cast Games to rest on good looks alone.