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Friday, 19 June 2020

Friday Fantasy: Tournaments of Madness and Death

Tournaments of Madness and Death is a scenario anthology for Crypts & Things: A Swords & Sorcery Roleplaying Game. Published by D101 Games, this is a grim and dark, Old School Renaissance retroclone which draws its inspiration from Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber, and L. Sprague de Camp’s Swords and Sorcery anthology. Tournaments of Madness and Death presents two scenarios—almost an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ side, almost because you cannot turn the book over to run either—and more. Both scenarios are designed for a party of between three and six characters of between Fourth and Fifth Levels; both are self-contained, but can be added to a Game Master’s own Crypts & Things campaign, whether one of her design or the default setting of The Continent of Terror; and notably, also designed to be run at conventions.

In fact, this is an important aspect of the two scenarios in Tournaments of Madness and Death. As written, both ‘The Furnace’ and ‘The Tomb of the Evil Emperor’ are designed to be run—and have been run—within a four-hour convention game slot and both include information to that end as part of their advice on how to stage them. In addition, the ‘more’ to Tournaments of Madness and Death includes the equivalent of an insert, slipped between the two scenarios. This is ‘Dark, Delicious and Deadly’, which explains how the author runs Crypts & Things at conventions. This focuses on what makes Crypts & Things different, keeping up the pace—as necessary, rewarding exploration and interaction, how to handle the flow of monsters in the game (primarily, do not over do it), and how to structure the game over the four-hour convention window. It is really good advice for anyone running this style of game and so could be applied to any number of retroclones. If there is an issue with the advice, it is that the author does not quite completely adhere to it himself. The advice states that the Game Master should use pre-generated characters to give out to the players rather than have them create them at the table, which just takes time. So why are there none given for either scenario?

The ‘A’ side or ‘The Furnace’ takes the player characters to the City of Eternal Shadow under Iron Moon chained above and onto the Iron Moon itself. In ages past, the powerful ancient immortals known as the Nine pulled the moon from the heavens and used it to imprison for the evil tyrant, The Mad Tzar. Now, chunks are falling from the Iron Moon onto the city below and everyone is fleeing the city of the dead for fear that the demonic Mad Tzar is about to break free. Can he be prevented from escaping? Will the adventurers come to the aid of the White Wizard Arksal, the last of the Nine? The adventurers have scope for a little investigation in the city before finding their way onto the Iron Moon, though the scenario is very much not investigative in nature. There are secrets to be found in the city below however—and the scenario highlights these as one of the features of Crypts & Things—and these hint that there is something more to this straightforward prevention of The Mad Tzar’s rebirth.

Once on the Iron Moon, the adventurers find themselves in the prison crypt of The Mad Tzar. Like most tombs in most fantasy roleplaying games, it is essentially linear and full of traps and the odd puzzle. There are more secrets to be found, but the dungeon design is itself not terribly interesting. In fact, run as a standard adventure it might even be a bit dull, but run at the suggested pace of a convention game and the players are unlikely to notice. It works to throw a challenge or three into the path of the adventurers to get them to the scenario’s denouement. This is a whole lot more excitement and escalates the danger that the player characters will face as the climax builds and builds. It is a challenging, big knockdown of a fight ending to the scenario and exactly what you want in a convention scenario.

The ‘B’ Side, ‘The Tomb of the Evil Emperor’ brings the adventurers to the tomb of an emperor so vile his name has been intentionally forgotten from the history of the Continent of Terror. He and his city—now known as the Grand Debris—were smashed when a meteor was pulled down onto his palace, which then became his tomb. Now a cult dedicated to his worship, the Scarlet Riders, has smashed its way through the town of Zonos, the City of the Exiles which immediately abuts the walls surrounding the Grand Debris, and into the ruins beyond. There they plan to awaken the Evil Emperor to once again cast his vile rule over the land as in ages past.

This is a much stronger adventure. Although it is still direct in its structure, there is more for the player characters to explore, the encounters are varied, and there is greater scope for roleplaying and exploration. The locations, whether a dissolute court of a governor’s palace or the remains of the Evil Emperor’s Palace under a meteorite, are simply more interesting and the Game Master has a few more NPCs to portray. There is also a ghoulish sensibility to ‘The Tomb of the Evil Emperor’ and if played as part of a campaign, there are more elements to bring into the Game Master’s campaign.

The two scenarios in Tournaments of Madness and Death are similarly structured. Each consists of an introduction or hook, a small urban area for the player characters to explore and perhaps investigate, a connecting adventure section—either an actual dungeon or a dungeon-like area, and finally, a big battle at the end. These elements fit into the suggested timings for running as convention scenarios. They also each deal with the two subjects of the title. Madness in two ways. First in the madness of the locations, the Iron Moon chained over the City of Eternal Shadow of ‘Furnace’ and the palace and city smashed under a meteorite in ‘The Tomb of the Evil Emperor’, as well as in the madness of unleashing unrivalled evil upon the Continent of Terror. Then there is the death that will be unleashed should the player characters fail. That said, there is a sense of familiarity to the locations in both scenarios—a city under a moon and then a smaller city abutting the walls of a much larger, smashed and broken city—that echo elements and locations in Greg Stafford’s Glorantha.

Physically, Tournaments of Madness and Death is slightly disappointing. It definitely needs an edit. However, it is easy enough to read and the maps are quite lovely. The artwork is really rather good and has a weird, often creepy, feel to it, and so fits the grim dark tone of Crypts & Things.

Tournaments of Madness and Death is a solid pair of convention scenarios, accompanied by good advice for running them at such events. In fact, the advice is worth reading by anyone who wants to run a fantasy roleplaying scenario at a convention. Of the two scenarios, ‘The Tomb of the Evil Emperor’ is the better and one that would make a good addition to a campaign. 

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