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Sunday 15 August 2010

When Two Became One

With just a few releases – Death Frost Doom and The Grinding Gear being the most notable of these – James Raggi IV has made something of a name for himself in the Old School Renaissance. His scenarios in particular are exercises in atmosphere and pseudo-naturalism over numbers and mechanics, each possessing a reason for being rather than just being places for the adventurers to go adventuring. The latest scenario to be published via Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess is Hammers of the God. Designed for characters of third to fifth level, this relatively short adventure has the characters delve back into the dark history of the Dwarves, one that they would best have you forget. It is written for the “Retro Clone” of your choice, including of course, Raggi’s own recently released Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Game.

Hammers of the God takes place in a dungeon that is one part shrine, one part tomb, all part Dwarf, which because it is all but forgotten about, can easily be placed anywhere in a campaign. What brings the party to the complex’s location is a map, which they can find as treasure, a purchase, or as something in the church archives, and because they know that something is there, the characters can gain entrance. Inside they find the remnants of a great architectural marvel, a series of vaulted rooms, perfectly preserved with their walls decorated with layers of ancient runes, the halls roamed by exactly preserved dwarf sentinels.

There are also not one, but two mysteries present in the adventure. To unravel both, the party need to penetrate further into the twin depths of the ancient complex. Actually penetrating down one of the branches has the possibility to be a frustrating experience, especially if the players are adverse to dealing with more technological features than might be found in other adventures. Such near technological elements though, are in keeping with the ancient, but somehow advanced nature of the civilisation the complex is a relic of and their presence should be thought of as being like larger puzzles than actual devices.

As with the previous Death Frost Doom and The Grinding Gears, this dungeon is relatively light in terms of monsters, there being more traps than puzzles. This is no doubt due to its age, but one of these puzzles has features beloved the Death Trap Dungeon, complete with random effects, some of which left me scratching my head at just how odd they were. For example, a glowing butterfly appears and follows the player characters until they encounter the first person after leaving the complex, whereupon the strange creature settles on this poor unfortunate and explodes! That certainly fits the “weird” aspect of the author’s Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Game.

The dungeon is also light in terms of traditional treasure. Much of what can be found has a certain sting in the tail, while other items could land the adventurers in trouble if shown to any knowledgeable dwarf. Even knowledge of what lies inside the complex could land the adventurers in trouble and if the DM wants it, have repercussions upon his campaign. Then again, I suspect that treasure is hardly a motivating factor for the characters in a Raggi run campaign in comparison to the spur that is curiosity.

Physically, Hammers of the God is as atmospheric as the earlier Death Frost Doom and The Grinding Gear. Laura Jalo’s heavy black and white illustrations in particular convey the gloom of the tomb and shrine, complementing Raggi’s own descriptions. One issue with previous scenarios is the lack of blurb and trade details on the back cover. Hammers of the God has them both, but much of their text sits over the back cover illustration making it very difficult to read the information there. Something to look at for future reprints and releases.

Interestingly, James Raggi himself lays down what he values the most in purchasing a commercial adventure: atmosphere and flavour. A view that he validates in Hammers of the God, an atmosphere laden adventure that is ripe with detail, especially historical detail. The latter as evidenced by the two appendices that account for two thirds of the booklet and describe all of the books to be found in the adventure, complete with a recipe for Apricot and Oat biscuits. All said though, Hammers of the God is more of an interesting adventure than a good adventure. This is not to say that it is unplayable – this is a Raggi design after all, but rather that once you take a step back from Hammers of the God, it feels a little odd. First because the two branches of the dungeon originated as two separate adventures and have been melded together, and you know this because the author tells you. Second because the complex just exists, it is isolated from the outside world and would exist were the party never to darken its doors, and for whatever reason, this feels odd though it does make the complex easy to add to a campaign. The GM of course, will just have to get around this, because the dungeon will eventually take notice of the intrusion.

If The Grinding Gear is Raggi at his most mechanical and Death Frost Doom at his most atmospheric, then Hammers of the God lies somewhere in between. Hammers of the God is more of a traditional dungeon, though no less eerie and atmospheric.

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