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Friday, 24 March 2023

Friday Fantasy: The Isle of the Plangent Mage

The Isle of the Plangent Mage
is a scenario published by Necrotic Gnome. It is written for use with Old School Essentials, the Old School Renaissance retroclone based on the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed by Tom Moldvay and published in 1980. It is designed to be played by a party of Third to Fifth Level Player Characters and is a standalone affair, but can be easily added to a campaign by the Referee. All it requires is a temperate coastline as a location, and possibly legends of a land lost to the waves in ages past. In the case of the latter, the Player Characters might have the opportunity to restore that, so bringing about a major change to the Referee’s campaign world and giving them somewhere new to explore. Likewise, if there is opportunity here to change the campaign world, there is also the possibility that the Player Characters will be changed and mutated by some of the encounters in the scenario. It is self-contained and so could be run as a one-shot, but unlike the earlier, official scenarios for Old School Essentials, such as The Hole in the Oak and The Incandescent Grottoes, it is not a suitable addition to the publisher’s own Dolmenwood setting. This is primarily due to the coastal rather than arboreal setting, but also because the scenario has a comparatively  technological feel to its magic. Whatever way in which the Referee decides to use the adventure, like so many other scenarios for the Old School Renaissance, The Isle of the Plangent Mage is incredibly easy to adapt to or run using the retroclone of the Referee’s choice. The tone of the dungeon is weird and unworldly, taking the Player Characters deep under the sea into a strange, James Bond villain-like secret base like that of Doctor No, to encounter the results of strange experiments, whilst elsewhere, the adventure has a mournful tone and a touch of the Lovecraftian.

The Isle of the Plangent Mage—‘plangent’ meaning ‘a loud and resonant sound with a mournful tone’—begins in the coastal village of Imbrich, whose inhabitants are possess mutations reminiscent of the Deep Ones from H.P. Lovecraft’s Shadows Over Innsmouth, including gills, scales, webbed fingers, and more. This though is only minor aspect of the scenario, one that the author does not play up and rightfully so since The Isle of the Plangent Mage is neither a horror scenario nor a Lovecraftian one. Instead, this aspect of the village of Imbrich is seen as normal by the inhabitants, and there is even a table of possible responses by the villagers should the Player Characters bring the subject up. Plus, they have bigger concerns. A pod of whales has beached itself along the cove. Cetus, a local wizard who lives on nearby Darksand Isle where he maintains a lighthouse to keep local shipping safe and conducts experiments, has gone missing. Then there are the strange sounds coming from the sea! Could they be the cause of the creatures from the sea beaching themselves?

The Isle of the Plangent Mage is a mini-wilderness and dungeon scenario which takes the classic format of a village in peril with a nearby wizard’s tower, the wizard not having been seen in a few days, and inverts it—literally. The wilderness areas consists of several caves along the coast which the Player Characters are free to explore and once they get to the island, Darksand Isle itself. One of the most notable encounters is with the pod of beached whales, which the players and their characters are likely to feel great sympathy for, but which the villagers see as bounty from the sea! This has the potential to be an interesting roleplaying encounter and perhaps there is the possibility of learning further information if the Player Characters are clever. Once the Player Characters reach Darksand Isle, they can encounter more of the villagers, with even greater signs of mutation, pirates, not one, but two lighthouses, a sad ghost, and the tower of the wizard, Cetus. However—and this is where the scenario inverts the trope to clever effect—the tower is not a tower in the traditional sense. Instead of going up, like an ascending dungeon, it goes down and does so through the centre of Darksand Isle under the sea, with great, magically sealed, observation windows looking out into the briny depths. This is not a tower, but an Undertower!

The Undertower has a weird technological feel to it, heavily themed around sound. A central lift runs up and down the tower, operated by unlabelled buttons, there are doors which can only be opened by musical tones, numerous devices which manipulate sounds and even magic, and combined with the great vistas presented by the various observation levels, the dungeon has a superbly fantastical feel. Yet imparting this to her players and their characters is going to be a challenge for the Referee because of the succinct style in which the location descriptions are presented. These work in helping the Referee grasp the details of any location with ease, but what they do not do in help her bring them to life. There is a sense that actually, sections of purple, descriptive text would really have helped here. An alternative perhaps, would have been to include some illustrations which could be shown to the players to help them visualise what their characters are seeing, much in the mode of S1 Tomb of Horrors, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and Dwimmermount. Given the number of buttons on the lift, the Soundkey device used to open many of the doors in the Undertower, the numerous sound devices, and pipes, and more, all of these are begging for illustrations and they are never given that.

One major weakness of The Isle of the Plangent Mage—especially in comparison to the earlier The Hole in the Oak and The Incandescent Grottoes—is the lack of factions and the lack of motivations for factions. In both of those adventures, the factions and their motivations helped drive the story and bring their respective dungeons alive, but not so in The Isle of the Plangent Mage. There are multiple groups throughout the adventure, including the villagers of Imbrich, pirates visiting Darksand Isle, tribes of Sahuagin which want to attack the village, the staff in Cetus’ tower, and more. Yet apart from the individual wants of various villagers, the Referee is not told what the other factions want and are doing. The staff in Cetus’ tower, in particular, are barely mentioned beyond their quarters and the kitchen. They have disappeared without explanation, whereas their presence would really have given some pointers for the Player Characters as to the nature of Cetus’ Undertower and how parts of it work. There are bodies here and there, but it is never stated if they are former staff and if not, who they were.

Another potential is Player Character motivation. The Referee will need to devise a reason for the Player Characters to want to visit the village of Imbrich, but once they get there they will find that various villagers have reasons, if not themselves, then someone else to visit and explore Darksand Isle and the Undertower. Beyond that keeping the Player Characters motivated to continue exploring will be a challenge for the Referee.

The Isle of the Plangent Mage is as well presented and as organised as previous scenarios for Old School Essentials from Necrotic Gnome—almost. The map of the whole dungeon is inside the front and covers , and after the introduction, the adventure overview provides a history of the dungeon, details of its major NPCs and monsters, the description and purpose of the great device built into the Undertower, and reasons to visit Darksand Isle. The village of Imbrich and its inhabitants are described in detail, and there are tables of rumours, treasure to be found in the adventure, random encounters to had throughout the adventure, and Oceanic Mutations that the Player Characters could, and probably will, suffer. 

In between are the descriptions of the locations up and down the coast, Darksand Isle, and in the Undertower
. All sixty-four of them. These are arranged in order of course, but each is written in a parred down style, almost bullet point fashion, with key words in bold with details in accompanying parenthesis, followed by extra details and monster stats below. For example, the ‘Rocky Vestibule’ area is described as containing “Black rock (rough, natural, 6’ ceiling). Puddles of seawater (tiny red crabs, black brittle stars). Pale blue light (glowing snails on walls). Pile of broken coral on floor (very lifelike head, arm and lower leg carved of coral). A rotting human corpse (covered in seaweed, swollen with sea water, slashed and cut up). It expands up this with “Taking stairs: Down to Area 37.” There is a fantastic economy of words employed here often to incredible effect. The descriptions are kept to a bare minimum, but their simplicity is in many cases evocative, easy to read from the page, and prepare. As with the other official adventures from Necrotic Gnome, much of The Isle of the Plangent Mage is genuinely easy to bring to the table and made all the easier to run from the page because the relevant sections from the map are reproduced on the same page. In addition, the map itself is clear and easy to read, with coloured boxes used to mark locked doors and monster locations as well as the usual room numbers.

In places though, the design and layout does not quite work. This is primarily where single rooms require expanded detail beyond the simple thumbnail description. It adds complexity and these locations are not quite as easy to run straight from the page as other locations are in the dungeon. Elsewhere, the location numbers could have been better placed alongside the rooms rather than on them and the map slips into the gutter of the book and is not as easy to read. The full colour artwork is excellent, depicting many of the strange creatures and monsters that the Player Characters will encounter, and these can easily be shown to their players.

The Isle of the Plangent Mage is a challenging dungeon for the Player Characters, who will often find themselves changed by the encounters in the adventure and many of the encounters are deadly, with some very nasty monsters, such as the betentacled, bipedal Alpha Shark Mutant, and the truly awful Night Trawler. Then there is the puzzle of what the Undertower is and how its various devices work, let alone where Cetus has disappeared too. In fact, unless the Player Characters are clever during an early encounter in the scenario, they may never find out! Depending upon the campaign or what the Player Characters have been engaged to do, that may be an issue all by itself. For the Referee, 
The Isle of the Plangent Mage is a challenging dungeon to run and present, and to really hook the players and their characters in to want to explore the Undertower. So ultimately, the Referee may want to develop the scenario herself before play, bringing in the factions and their motivations, giving stronger reasons for the Player Characters to act and more. Once done, The Isle of the Plangent Mage is a genuinely fantastical, even memorable environment, that will really need a bit of effort upon the part of the Referee to be genuinely fantastical, even memorable adventure.

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