Cliff Warrens of the Covid Birdmen
by Scott Moberly
Oh OD&D, is there any version finer? Even when mundane you bring a level of originality that tends to not be present in other versions. I love your weirdness that brings a more fantastic and fairy-tae vibe. I love your unique monsters that no players has ever heard of and causes their characters to feel in terror of the unknown. I love your magic items, unique, mysterious, and with idiosyncratic rules around them. What if the D&D books came with no monster descriptions? What if it came with no list of magic items, or just the 1E DMG artifacts? What if the sample adventures had the party armed with pocket knives, blankets, crowbars, a chicken, and lots and lots of sacks? Imagine playing a game where everything is new and unique and you never know what any creature encountered will do. Where the glorious and fantastic items you find are mysterious and awe-inspiring … treasured by your characters and by the player also. Imagine bravely entering the underworld to wrest the loot from it, knowing full well that everything you meet could kill you in an instant. That’s what OD&D means to me. That’s the world of the awesome and the fantastic and the unknown that I want. That’s my Dungeons & Dragons.
This is a little 9-room cave system. It’s packed full of OD&D weirdness and charm, even if it doesn’t make any sense at times. New monsters, weird stuff, terse descriptions … I’d rather read and review a hundred of these little things, even though it’s not the best example of OD&D greatness, than any other versions opus.
A group of crow-like evil bird-men are terrorizing a town. With a fondness for human flesh and shiny things, they swoop down at night and abduct the good people, who are never seen of again. The major hires the group to go take care of them. A local ships lookout saw some bird-like creatures carrying something large, a body? to some cliffs nearby. I’m not a big fan of “the party gets hired to …” adventures. I find that hook very tiresome and generally the result of someone not trying very hard. Freehold knights, a need to find something, or almost any other hook (EXCEPT CARAVAN GUARDS!) is almost always better. The best kind of hooks motivate the players, not the characters. The buy in from “lets go find that fucker and slit his throat!” is much better than “you get paid 10go for the mission.” I suspect that a lot of designers have a strong central idea (evil bird people!) that they then expand in to an adventure, and that the hook is often the last thing to be done. The adventure’s not done till a good hook is attached.
There’s no personality attached to the town, the mayor, the ship, or anything else in the set up. That’s disappointing as well, although there IS a rumor table. In fact, I think the rumor table is a good example of how personality adds to an adventure. The table has a lot of the usual rumors “some is tricking us” , “its the mayor to get power”,”a demon is loose”, and so on. Where it really shines though is when it adds personality “i hear they have a taste for plump women. I best keep my sister indoors.” That’s good. That’s got style. More rumors should be like that. Local nonsense with fluff. Can you imagine a group of murder hobos soliciting plump hookers for a day or so to use as bait, based on that rumor? THAT’S going to be a fun night of D&D!
The cave system is just a little hand-drawn map with none rooms. Some generic scribblings on a page with no elevation, features, or wandering monsters. There’s a way to hook in a larger dungeon, but otherwise it’s not memorable. The nine encounters, over two pages (Yes! Three pages total! Take that Dungeon Magazine!) One of the first rooms has the flickering torchlight reveal, just at its edge, the figure of a woman with black hair in a grey cloak. It’s an insane sea hag. And the room has a confusion effect on it from a previous wizard occupant. And there’s mad scrawling on the wall form the old wizard, when this place was use by him. It is delivered much better in the adventure. The very next room has four of the evil bird men guard a huge repulsive mass of filthy feathers, the immobile bird-man queen mother. Slop pails of intestines, filthy straw nests, and a fear effect that causes people to run to the cave mouth and throw themselves off the cliff, hoping to end it all. Great Stuff! Nothing at all generic about that. It’s this sort of thing that I love in an adventure. Embrace the idea fully and go with it. No second chances, no falterings. “Yeah, I did it. So what?”
The monsters here are a weird mix. One the one hand you’ve the evil crow-like bird men and their bulbous queen. GREAT imagery on them and their queen, some harpy-lite powers, and a style to them “fondness for human flesh” that is delivered without a great number of words. But there’s also the hag, and a troll … and you can talk to the troll! I LOVE it when the monsters talk to the players. Yeah yeah, I could make any monster talk to the party, but I could also write my own adventure. Far too often designers turn to “they attack”, as if the adventure is an us vs. them of the DM against the players. Instead the monsters in OD&D tend to take on a more realistic tone, which combined with more their fantastic nature delivers a different kind of play experience. And you can always shiv them in the kidneys and take their loot if you decide you have to have that jewel they are carrying around …
The treasure disappoints. Generic treasure and generic jewels to be found in the evil bird man lair. There’s no excuse for that, especially since last issue AND this issue have articles/lists of better treasure. Mundane treasures much better described and interesting than those in the adventure, and minor magical items that deliver much more flavor and originality than a carpet of flying ever will.
Again, a special call-out to those treasure articles. The descriptions could be more interesting but they are certainly going in the right direction.