Gang Lords of Lankhmar, DCC adventure review

By Harley Stroh
Goodman Games
Level 1

The City of the Black Toga: Home to hundreds of back alley courts, rotting tenements, and an endless number of gangs, whose fortunes rise and fall as surely as the tides of the Inner Sea. Each gang vies against the others, pitting beggar against bravo, slayer against thug, and gang lord against gang lord. It’s a Lankhmar story that’s been told a thousand times, and would be entirely forgettable, save for one key element: the characters. The initial stakes are small as the gangs vie for control of a small slum. But as bodies begin to appear in the Hlal and the shadow war threatens to spill over into street violence, the price of blood favors those who trade in swordwork and black magic. If they hope to survive, the PCs will need to be both deadly and cunning by turns. For when the first rule of thieves is to never kill the hen that lays brown eggs with ruby in the yolk, old hands know it won’t be long before the Thieves’ Guild moves to protect their interests. May Death himself have mercy on those who stand in their way.  

This 32 page adventure outlines a gang war in a neighborhood slum. It has most of the gameplay elements down right, if flavorful,  but doesn’t quite know how to present them in a way that makes it easy to run. Highlighter City.

A slum neighborhood. Three minor gangs. One gets uppity ands hires the pc’s to shake things up, he wants total control of the neighborhood. Things go downhill in a series of strikes, retaliations, and escalating events that cause others from outside the neighborhood to notice. It ends with, perhaps, the party in charge of one of the gangs, setting up a fine fine city adventure campaign. And I do LUV me a city adventure campaign! 

A city adventure campaign forces the party in to a more cautious play style. Uh, hopefully, anyway, since it IS the party. No more wanderers, they get to learn of, and live with, the consequences of their actions. Their own neighborhood. How the other people in the city react and so on. It places back the social control of Keeping up with the Jones’s and not being ostracized by everyone else around you. Like the fence. Or the temple. And, of course, not getting squished like a bug but those MUCH higher up on the ladder.

And that’s what this adventure is trying to do, and largely accomplishes, I think. In a tortured way. There’s a neighborhood tension tracker. The more people you kill, etc the higher the tension in the neighborhood. As it gets higher things in the neighborhood start to change, people get wary. As it gets higher the criminal element in charge of the city tells you to cool it. And then assassins show up. And the city guard starts hassling you more, singling you out. And then they stop hassling you and actually start doing their job. And finally, if left to get high enough, the Overlord notices, puts the neighborhood under martial law, and the guard goes house to house in a brutal crackdown to find the party … and the neighborhood isn’t going to appreciate that, I’m sure. Thus the social element returns to D&D. Yeah!

Other elements help feed in to the overall vibe. There’s more than a few encounters with scouts on rooftops, keeping track of the party. There are good summary overviews of the what’s going to take place. The core of the adventure is events, on a timeline, that the DM drops in, supplements by a few location descriptions, of the three gangs and a few other “notable” places in the neighborhood. There is a web of relationships, in places, and a great sense of flavour. The doorway to one of the gang hideouts has a bunch of rusty knives, cleavers, etc hanging over it by strings, or an old crone at the tavern who is brought dead vermin by the neighborhood orphans to cook … and fight to defend her. Great great ideas and situations in this in to which the party can then dip their toes to pour their own brand of gas on things. It’s a sandbox driven by a timeline. 

But, alas …

There are two things wrong here. First, the trivial. Goodman clearly has a style guide which states that read aloud is in italics. LAME! Hard to read! There’s not a lot of it, but there are multiple sentences when it shows up. Lame! Well, at least in 2018 they had it that way.

More importantly, they don’t know how to format an adventure like this, or, Harley doesn’t know how to write one like this, in order to make it easily playable. There’s just too much for the “standard text paragraph” to handle. “Here’s everything about the place in paragraph format” is too much to hold in your head. It’s hard to find things. It’s hard to grab elements to shove in to your game and enhance it. I don’t think I’d be able to keep in my head the shopkeepers general reactions to the party, the old crone, the orphans running around, in addition to the main plot elements. But THOSE things are what is going to make the adventure immersive. Those things are what is going to make this one of the best adventures the party has ever played in. But, the DM has to be able to find it, remember to include it, remember to enhance the adventure with that flavor. And that just breaks down after a certain point. You can’t hold everything in your head. That’s why “always on” map text is important. That’s why summary sheets for NPC’s are important. That’s why its important to have a format other than paragraph form for longer and/or more complicated sections. 

This is a GREAT city adventure. It oozes with flavor. It can set up things that the party will be enjoying for a LONG time and talk about forever. (Also, remember, i LUV city adventures.) But, I don’t think you can run it in a way that takes advantage of it all, without some serious highlighting and creating your own notes and summary sheets. Are you willing to put in the work? 

This is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. You get the overview/summary, the timeline of events, and the first event laid out. From that you can get a good idea of both the flavor and a hint of the difficulty in running the thing to maximum effect.

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14 Responses to Gang Lords of Lankhmar, DCC adventure review

  1. Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

    Would such adventures be better formatted if it was broken out between location, factions, and timeline?

  2. Anonymous says:

    What distinguishes this adventure from needing highlighter vs other Harley works? I remember you saying he is one of the greats

    Does the author have tendancies to overwrite?

    • Edgewise says:

      Most of Stroh’s other stuff consists of dungeon crawls, so organization is less of an issue. My personal opinion of Harley’s adventures is that they are terrific, but you have to read them carefully ahead of time to notice all the gaps in explanations so you’re ready when you run it. Also, the information isn’t always well-organized, and explanations can be a bit scattered.

      You can see all these tendencies in Fate’s Fell Hand. It’s a brilliant open-ended adventure with a complex context and its own mechanics to handle them. When you really start trying to answer questions like “what EXACTLY happens to a character who dies?,” you have to either read things very closely or come up with your own rulings.

  3. Edgewise says:

    This is precisely the sort of thing I love to see reviewed here. Stuff where you can’t actually tell how good it will be by looking at a shitty preview. Also always good to see a Stroh joint.

  4. Landifarne says:

    Just from the preview you can tell that it’s packed with stuff…and that you’d have to spend a great deal of time digesting it. Sounds like a solid effort.

  5. I bought the DCC Lankhmar Boxed set (via Kickstarter) and couldn’t have been more disappointed. Bryce’s review is spot on for this particular nugget: the adventure has great ideas but is not organized in a fashion that makes it the least bit usable at the game table. My major issue with the entire boxed set was saw off the serial numbers and the Lankhmar name and nothing about it felt any different than any other city. The over-use of random tables as filler was atrocious. I like DCC, I like Joe Goodman, I like a LOT of their products. Lankhmar was a HUGE miss for me.

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Whats unique to Lankhmar? Yes, I am an appendix N virgin.

      • Robert says:

        You might find some solace for that condition in the newly wrought compilation entitled ‘Appendix N. The Eldritch Roots of Dungeons and Dragons’. It contains a goodly variety of the Appendix N authors’ works and I’ve found it to indeed be inspiring!

  6. howardjones777 says:

    What’s unique to Lankhmar has a lot to do with the fact that the city was the first well-described, ongoing home base to sword-and-sorcery characters and even more to the consummate skill of its creator, Fritz Leiber (with some initial help from a friend), who, incidentally, coined the term sword-and-sorcery to differentiate the kind of fiction he and others (and Robert E. Howard, before them) were writing as opposed to Tolkien and that school of fantasy. For a link to my favorite definition of sword-and-sorcery, go here:

    But it’s not just that Lankhmar came first, it’s that it was brought to life by the repeated journeys of Fafrhd and the Gray Mouser toward and away from the marsh city. We come to know its avenues and its temples and its frightening gods. So far as I have ever been able to learn, Leiber’s the first one who came up with the concept of a Thieves Guild, or an Assassin’s Guild (the slayer’s brotherhood, which isn’t solely for assassins, although they do that, too).

    The city has personality all its own and it cast a huge shadow over all urban fantasy adventures that have come after, particularly through the outsize influence it had on D&D. When I read submissions for *Tales From the Magician’s Skull* featuring a streetwise rogue and a fighter in an urban setting, I’m generally reading work by some young writer who doesn’t even realize they’re telling me a Lankhmar inspired tale because they’re getting that feel from a diluted, second-hand version of the city from some knock-off book or adventure they’ve run across. Nearly every urban fantasy novel or urban module since Leiber has been trying to follow his imprint, and they nearly always come up short.

    There are six or seven or sometimes four or even two (depending upon how the stories are collected) volumes of stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and not all are equal. Many, me among them, would tell you that those written earlier are better, but this advice can be confusing because the first book of stories collects adventures that were written LATER in the author’s life. For my money, the very best tales are those originally printed in *Swords Against Death,* *Swords in the Mist,* and *Swords Against Wizardry.* *Swords of Lankhmar* is a fix-up novel but has some fine moments. Most of *Swords Against Death* is a must-read, but if you only have time for one tale, read “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” If you read *Swords in the Mist,* steer well clear of the exceptionally weak “Adept’s Gambit.”

    If you are one of those who insists on reading everything in the order intended, remind yourself that the stories were written out of order and read them in publication order instead, or steel yourself for some so-so stories in volume one, *Swords and Deviltry,* apart from “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” which, though award winning, still isn’t as good as earlier Lankhmar stories printed in the next three original books. Time and again I’ve run into people who’ve said, “Oh, yeah, Lankhmar. I read the first book and stopped. I didn’t see what the big deal was.” The best stuff is the early stuff.

    • Gnarley Bones says:

      Alas, I have but one Like to give this.

      Lankhmar is the Ur-D&D Fantasy City. My biggest complaints with TSR’s efforts to make Lankhmar products is that, all too often, they came off as bland re-makes of existing fantasy city products (Greyhawk, Waterdeep), which were already themselves pale imitations of the literary Lankhmar. A crucial part of any game in Lankhmar should be, “Holy crap,” we’re in Lankhmar, and not some effortlessly-substituted fantasy city setting.

      • Bryce Lynch says:

        My most favorites campaign every was all in fantasy city. I toopk every fantasy supplement and combined it all. It was the most fun ever. The orc bar with throughs? It’s in there! Ring the bell to summon the old gods?! It’s in there! And they did it.

  7. Shuffling Wombat says:

    Thank you for the review. I think this one has definite potential, but the referee will need to be at the top of their game to get the most out of it. NPC summary sheets, maybe with a picture sketch and space to record a few notes about their dealings with the PCs, would help. (A 2e Dark Sun module, Road to Urik, had such a “scorecard” back in 1992.)
    In the introductory material, it is said this would be “easily inserted into any urban DCC RPG game”. I think that is true, so its versatility is a strength; however I would agree with comments above that it lacks real Lankhmar flavour.

    • Reason says:

      What do you add though to get “real Lankhmar flavour”? I’m still not sure.

      Dangerous mists? Cults & petty gods feuding over street position?

      • Shuffling Wombat says:

        It is not easy, but just the odd detail here and there can move you away from “ye olde generic city” (which is usually rather contemporary). And for that, I suggest consulting someone who knows the setting inside out: howardjones777 has convinced me.
        An example from elsewhere is the peculiar laws in Melan’s Baklin. Public executions are carried out by sewing offenders into a leather sack, and then beating them to death with staves before a crowd. Now NPCs can say “I could get the Sack for that, it’ll cost you double”.

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