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Sunday, 26 February 2017

A Treasury Relic

As one of the first licensees, Judges Guild was in its heyday, a highly prolific publisher, releasing not only scenarios and supplements for Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but also Traveller, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, Empire of the Petal Throne, Tunnels and Trolls, RuneQuest, Superhero 2044, and Villains and Vigilantes. Since its heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s, quite a few of those products have remained held in high regard, such as City State of the Invincible Overlord, Tegel Manor, Dark Tower, and so on, these titles often being brought back into print by other publishers. That said, given the sheer number of titles published by Judges Guild, the truth is that the quality of a very great many of them was far from being professional by the standards of the day, let alone by those of today. Nevertheless, there are many that are worth examining almost four decades after they were first published and many worth bringing to your table almost four decades after they were first published. One of these is The Book of Treasure Maps.

The Book of Treasure Maps was designed, written, and illustrated by Paul Jaquays, the designer best known for the dungeons Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia. Published in 1979, The Book of Treasure Maps was a first in two ways. The first and obvious is its cover, which is not an illustration, but a photograph, this of the author and his friends engaging in a LARP. The second is that The Book of Treasure Maps contains not one, but five adventures or dungeons. Since the publication of G1, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief by TSR, Inc. in 1978, dungeons or adventures had been singular affairs, but The Book of Treasure Maps is an anthology, a quintet of mini-dungeons, the only connection between the five being that they are set in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Judges Guild’s campaign world. Of course, the DM need not set any one of the five dungeons in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, but he will need to adjust their accompanying clues to fit the campaign world of his choosing.

It is a format that Judges Guild would return to with the publication of The Book of Treasure Maps II and The Book of Treasure Maps III, and TSR, Inc. would visit the concept itself in 1992 with the release of GR3 Treasure Maps for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. The origins of the concept lie in the fact that in the 1970s, treasure in Dungeons & Dragons did not consist of just jewels, gems, and coins, but would often include a treasure map. This would be lure enough for the players and their adventurers to follow the clues that such a map would present to an adventure that the DM had prepared. What The Book of Treasure Maps contains then, are treasure maps and their associated dungeons. The treasure maps in this anthology include not only maps but scrolls and book excerpts, notably with permission given to photocopy them and use them as handouts for the players to pore over. Of course the fact that the players were being given a handout in 1979 was rarity enough to ensure their interest. The dungeons themselves are designed for characters of medium to high level, so roughly Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Levels.

The Book of Treasure Maps begins with ‘The Lost Temple’. Located on a map in The Fantastic Wilderlands Beyonde supplement, the clue to this dungeon comes from a journal entry describing a long and ultimately failed journey. Its thirteen room complex details an abandoned oracle, rumoured to be home to a demon. It is a relatively straightforward affair, but what it illustrates is that there is still plenty of play to be got out of a dungeon even if the players and their characters have been already been given most of its locations on the map. Despite the book being written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, there is a nice nod in the adventure to David A. Trampier’s iconic cover for the Player’s Handbook which was published the year before and depicts the attempted theft of the giant gems used as eyes in the statue of a demon. Although ‘The Lost Temple’ harks back to an era when a dungeon was a dungeon for a dungeon’s sake, it is nevertheless a short and serviceable affair.

There is no lack of purpose to ‘The Tomb of Aethering the Damned’. It is as the title suggests, a tomb, this of an evil lord and it is said, the members of his family. As with ‘The Lost Temple’ it consists of relatively few locations and its map can be found in The Fantastic Wilderlands Beyonde supplement. The tomb is home to lots of the undead and some rather cruel traps. In fact, the traps feel just a little cruel by modern standards, but by the conventions of the day and given the fact that this is the tomb of an evil tyrant, they are more than fitting. This being a tomb and there being a mummy that makes an appearance there is a slight Ancient Egyptian feel to this adventure, the focus of which is on the encounters with Lord Aethering, his wife, and his son. Though all of the locations of in the tomb are quite detailed, particular attention is paid to the encounters with these three NPCs and the DM should have some fun with them and the curses involved in two of them. In particular, the possible change in gender and character following the encounter with Athering’s wife will be a challenge for the DM and player alike, but a memorable one at that.

The highpoint to The Book of Treasure Maps is the third scenario, ‘The Lone Tower’. Where the previous two scenarios have been a little pedestrian, this leaps out and buries its fangs into gothic horror in the best style of Hammer Horror. Located on a map from the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, ‘The Lone Tower’ consists of a gothic tower mansion that is home to the Lady Clearmoon and which can only be accessed on nights of the full moon. Further, the clue to its location is inscribed on a round, magical shield and is only revealed in the moonlight. From all of these references to the Moon it should be clear what the threat is in this adventure actually is—werewolves! And this is the case, the chateau-style mansion being infested with them. Although the forty or so locations in the chateau are in effect a dungeon, its design and layout as a chateau gives it a naturalism that adds to the horror themes. The adventure includes a plot or three, though the DM will need to give the adventure a thorough read through since they are not discussed up front. These involve the adventure’s main NPCs and any DM will relish getting to roleplay them.

At fifteen pages long, with more artwork and cartography, both of which fit the genre, ‘The Lone Tower’ is the longest adventure in The Book of Treasure Maps, but it does feel as if it should be longer and further developed. It feels not a little reminiscent of I6 Ravenloft, the classic Gothic vampire adventure published by TSR, Inc. in 1983—or rather, I6 Ravenloft feels not a little reminiscent of ‘The Lone Tower’. Of all the adventures in The Book of Treasure Maps, this feels like the one that the designer loved the most. 

After ‘The Lonely Tower’, the other two mini-dungeons in The Book of Treasure Maps feel somewhat underwhelming, but rather that is indication of how good ‘The Lone Tower’ is in comparison. The clue to ‘Willichidar’s Well’ is in a history book which describes a smoking well found atop a bald hill. Located on a map in Wilderlands of the Magical Realm supplement, ‘Willchidar’s Well’ consists of five locations and is just six pages long. Its design is that of a dungeon as a trap for the all too curious. Investigate too far, get just a little too greedy, and the player characters will unleash a demon lord that could very well defeat them if they do not act quickly. Perhaps the fun at this point will be when the player characters find themselves fighting alongside demons as they try to defeat the unleashed demon lord. ‘Willchidar’s Well’ is a nasty one-session adventure, but fighting alongside demons—and possibly some divine beings from other factions—will make this an epic encounter.

The fifth and final dungeon is ‘The Crypts of Arcadia’. Unlike the other mini-dungeons in The Book of Treasure Maps, this dungeon does not have a specific location, but the DM is encouraged to read through it carefully and select a place to locate it based on the background given. In fact, this background or backstory is probably more interesting than the dungeon itself. The crypts are actually the burial vaults for the Church of Arcadia, a faith that promised eternal life and flourished many years ago before being discovered that it was an inadvertent front for a deity building an army of the dead and so the faithful sealed the vaults, smashed the temple, and went back to worshipping whatever god they had been worshipping before their conversion to the now false faith. Unfortunately the vaults still exist, the local thieves guild knows of them, but not their location or that of the only map ever made. The player characters are of course, about to come into possession of the map. Thus it should be a race to get into the vaults, past the endless hordes of the undead, get the treasure, and get out again.

The design of the dungeon is such that both its key encounters and content can be placed randomly, whether by DM decision or his making rolls on the provided tables. The aim being to ensure that no two playthroughs of the dungeon would ever be the same, but the result is that the DM does need to work that little extra to make it live up to the backstory.

Physically, The Book of Treasure Maps is printed on cheap paper and so feels cheap. Yet it is well written, the artwork is good, the maps are clear, and at worst, it needs another proofreading.

By the standards of 1979, all five dungeons in The Book of Treasure Maps are solid pieces of design and writing. They are all good dungeons and with a little adjustment here and there could be run using Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition or the retroclone of your choice. Indeed these are exactly the types of dungeon that the Old School Renaissance harks back to, stripped back, deadly dungeons. Yet there is atmosphere and even plot here too in one or two of the adventures and there is no reason why a group could not be challenged by or enjoy these mini-dungeons after all this time.

As good or as solid pieces of dungeon design as the five mini-dungeons are in The Book of Treasure Maps, there is one very good dungeon in the anthology. This is ‘The Lone Tower’, an entertaining slice of horror gaming that leaves this reviewer wishing that it could have been longer and that the author would come back and write some more.