By Bill Barsh
Pacesetter Games & Simulations
With the rescue of Prince Thrommel, a new enemy has been revealed. A mysterious and dangerous organization is growing in power. Simply known as the Slave Lords, they raid with impunity. Entire villages have disappeared and fear is on the rise. Little is known about these Slave Lords, but now, just outside the vile city of Highport, you have learned of a hidden base.
Oh, what could have been …
This is a little intro adventure that links up Hommlet to the Slavers series. The idea is that the players free Thrommel from slavers (in an earlier adventure) and he tasks them, as a kind of mercenary/secret agents/commandos, to run point. In fact, there’s some really good stuff in the DM background about double agents, secret meetings, contacts and introductions, that feel right out of the Danger International games I used to play in high school. Our games always ended with us assaulting the Evil Bad Guy base (in retrospect: why the fuck did we do this by ourselves?), and the bilk of this adventure is the assault on the bad guy base. A mostly boring assault with a couple of set pieces and little else of interest.
Let’s cover that intro. There’s a great little introduction about Thrommel tasking the characters, and them having the name of a guy in a village who will introduce them to a fisherman who knows where the base is and he’s all “I want to help you!” because his sisters sons have been taken and …. Well, that’s about it. That same information is repeated three of four times. The DM background. The players introduction. The actual encounters. The additional text in later two sections don’t add anything to the basic set up offered in the DM background. In fact, the DM background tends to be better because it’s clearer and terser. Instead of repeating information a little more could have been added around the evil city of Highport (which has almost nothing describing it) and showing why it’s evil, and doing a little cloak and dagger stuff, even if just as background, that would set up a tense spy/infiltration mission once the players get to the fisherman. Instead, its all skipped over and we cut straight to the first room where the fisherman is a double agent … he’s an assassin and it’s an ambush! Cool! And he jumps off the boat and runs across the water using his ring of water walking! Uh …. Not cool. That smacks too much of Things Working Out Just Right to me, and I hate those kinds of set ups. Instead he could have jumped in the water and swam away, or something else. “But, but, there are sharks in the water!” Then don’t put sharks in the water. Or just hint that there are big fish. That would freak the PLAYERS out and lead to a much more interesting situation.
This leads in to one of the two or three big set pieces of the adventure. Orcs & Hobs fire flaming arrows form the dock and assault the characters as they try to do something. It also shows a flaw: the two leaders, an orc and a hob, are given little backgrounds and names. But, they are doomed to die. The irony here is that this adventure follows from Hommlet and this very situation is sometimes known as ‘Lareth Syndrome’. This is where you have some super-interesting evil guy somewhere in the adventure, who has set everything up, who the party stumbles upon and stabs. There’s no tension and no build up. Because the first time you meet Lareth he’s just some dude behind a door in the last room of the dungeon, you never learn WHY he’s evil. You never see any sign of what he’s done. Maybe he rants a bit that he’s the big cheese in charge, maybe not. It always ends the same: the characters stab him, yawn, and loot the bodies. Instead, these people need a build up. Rumors around town. Heads on posts and warning signs with his name on it. Minions who mention him in threats or something else. Then, when the EHP is introduced, you have some proper quaking-in-the-boots, or even a better motivation to stab him. The orc and hob have this problem. They are just standing there, waiting to be stabbed, with no set up, instead of having a nice little section in town, or the village that mentions how terrible they are, or their names whispered in fear/awe, or anything like that. The set piece is ok, but the flavor is not.
The encounters here are almost all “you see a dude. He tries to stab you.” That’s too bad. Several of the encounters imply that the party could try and impersonate evil mercenaries, or slaves, or sneak around, or something like that. But they all end with “and the dude doesn’t fall for it and attacks.” Rather than the location feeling like a real place that has a life of its own that the players can interact with and in some cases take advantage of, instead this feels like a set up. It’s written anticipating that the party will come through. Not because of the ambush but because of deck being stacked BY THE DESIGNER. That’s a major turn off for me. I like to see an adventure location that exists outside of the characters and then reacts to them, rather than a location written with the characters in mind. It’s the difference between “the guard questions people who enter”, with the guard having motivations and goals, and “the guard attacks players who enter.” In the later, the fix is in. There are MANY places in this adventure where there could be a great opportunity to try The Bold Lie: I’m Supposed to Be Here. But in every case it’s foiled by the designer saying “They attack!” Can I run it the other way? The Correct Way? Sure, but I believe adventures teach people, the DM and the players, how to play by reinforcing things, and I don’t want to see bad ideas reinforced. I want situations for the party to react to, not a pre-ordained course of action. There’s another section, related, where the party can free some slaves. Some evil slaves. And they betray the party. Lame. The party should be rewarded for their actions and betrayal is not it. Evil is not Stupid. This is a fine opportunity lost to make the parties lives more interesting with some evil henchmen. Think of the RP! Oh, wait, they betray the party at the first opportunity. Gee, haven’t see that before. Why rescue people? Just fucking kill every NPC you meet; it’s safer that way.
There are a few other points I could make. The upper level doesn’t really encourage its exploration because of the orientation of the great halls and corridors. Some of the descriptive text and imagery is good, especially the parts around the captured slaves, but in other places it resorts to the usual Too Much Text syndrome. Too Much Text is the rule rather than he exception in this case. There’s a good monster/trap thing in a treasure room that has to do with the treasure animating; it’s got a very OD&D/weird vibe in that place. The slave auction, proper, is an opportunity lost. Slave, buyers, and guards should be running amok, in a scene of mass chaos. Instead it’s just presented as a normal combat. Peek our interest! Add Color! Personalize it without railroading!