Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier

By Gus L.
Ratking Productions
Level 1

Welcome to the Crystal Frontier, a desolate magic stained wasteland where fabulous crystal spires and fortresses plummet from the skies to tempt the desperate and the bold with magical gems and golden treasures. Find your fortune or find your death as you plunder the fallen sky tomb of an Empyrean despot. SCHEME with the unnatural denizens of the Crystal Tomb! UNRAVEL the secrets of the Dead King and his realm of misrule! LOOT strange magics and opulent treasures from beyond the sky’s vault!

This 61 page digest sized adventure presents a “classic” dungeon crawl with about eighteen rooms in about as many pages, along with associated murder-hobo town. It oozes with the Gus L flavour, is well laid out and edited … albeit pushing the boundaries of what can be done with the selected style, and is full of interesting situations. A classic dungeon-crawl of the best sort … with a little weird world of crystals thrown in.

Normally I’d cover what’s good about an adventure and then rip it apart. Normally, adventures are bad. But this isn’t a bad adventure. So, instead, I’m going to cover first what could be improved and then go on to fanboy’ing over what’s good.

So … the map. It’s a good map. Don’t get me wrong. It’s got some elevation changes. Some terrain features. A few alternative paths. It’s pretty clear and evocative and matches the vibe of the adventure well. Little map sections are also included in the adventure for reference during play. IE: this is the picture of the room you are currently in. But, in addition to the “main” map there is also an isometric map. Isometric maps generally excel in showing elevation changes. And that it does! You can see room features like ledges and cliffs very well. It fails, I think, in some of the corridor elevation changes. Or, maybe, doesn’t match what the text of the adventure says? It’s a minor thing.

Second, the adventure setting. The land of Gus is full of crystals. It makes sense in the context of the world, but that world is not one of high fantasy or even middle fantasy. Grewhawk and Forgotten Realms players will be out of their element. Unless you run an exclusively Red Wizards game. This tends much closer to something like the world of ASE1, a world in which the wizards are in charge and they are fucking brutal. It’s not quite gonzo, but, The Warlock King of the Bull Kingdom is the land next door and people get diseases that cause them to grow crystals out of their body. I think it kicks ass and would fit in to my default game world style. But Greyhawk it ain’t. 

Finally, the format and/or layout. It’s good. It’s VERY good. It’s using a great general format, providing a brief room overview of a few sentences and bolding a few of the keywords in that overview, that then get their own sections of follow up information that is easy to scan. Rooms generally get between half a page (digest sized) to two pages, depending on complexity. The longest sections tend to be about about a quarter of a column. What’s he managed to do here is pack a tremendous amount of information in to a very little amount of space .ALMOST too much. It’s not too much. But man, you look aat it and you’re like “this is a lot.” and then you go through it, and, because of his job in editing and formatting, it’s not. You can locate and scan information quite easily. I don’t know, though, how much farther this can be taken. If this were a much longer dungeon would I still feel the same way? Or, if the rooms were even more packed can the same sofmratting hold up? I don’t know. So, yes, my bitch is that it’s MAYBE not future proof and triggers my past adventure review trauma when glancing at it before actually looking at it. 😉

Gus knows what he fuck he is doing, and this is oriented towards a new DM. Or, perhaps, a Dm not accustomed to the OSR play style. He offers advice both up front and in the rooms, as sidebars, on how to handle things. 

One room, a large cavern ,has, like, 500 bodies in it that animate when disturbed, as zombies. “Ah!” i thought “A puzzle room!” and indeed Gis then has a nice little sidebar pointing out that this is NOT a combat encounter and how to run it not as one. Also, uh, room with 500 zombies in it! Kick ass!

We’re got factions in the dungeon. There are some interesting puzzles, both literally, as is generally found in tombs, and figuratively, like the zombie room. Crystal Dustremains an environmental danger in many rooms. There are “people” to talk to and Gus makes explicit the ration table in many encounters, reminding the DM to use them by noting how they react. 

I’m going to cite some descriptions from the nearby shithole town he describes, as examples of How To Do Things.

The town is described as “A town filled with vileness, its very atmosphere impregnated with the odour of abomination; murder runs riot, drunkenness the rule, gambling a universal pastime, fighting recreation.” Now that’s the kind of frontier town I like! A deadwood after my own heart. One of the gangs is called Bug Tunny and the DeadHeart Boys. Not bandits. Not brigands. No. Big Tunny and his DeadHeart Boys. THAT’S how you refer to something in an adventure. That’s the kind of specificity that adds so much to an adventure. The kind that “brigand gang” can never duplicate. Also,The  League of Saloonkeepers and Madams for the Common Defense. The fucking name REEKS of the situation in town and you could write an entire based around that name alone because of all that is implied in t! Fuck! Yeah! And he’s got a whole LONG table of situations that could be going on in town. It takes up so little space and adds so much. Rot-Root the lotus dealer is out of stock. He’s waiting on a huge shipment from Aurum Ferro any

day now. The addicts are restless. The market is poised to be upturned by a cunning entrepreneur, or a skilled hijacker. Uh huh. That’s got so much in it!

He does a great job with supplemental information, even providing a tracking sheet, ala Melan, for the DM to track time and the like on. There’s a possession table that is out of this world. Realistic, makes sense, not too punishing but still make syou wish you weren’t possessed. It’s little details, that, over and over again, build on themselves to deliver an impact much larger than the mere word count would imply. 

I leave you with the description of one of the rooms:

Accessible only via a long crawl down a 3’ square corridor. The cold, damp passage descends before finally opening into the room near its ceiling. From the passage is a 10’ drop into the blackwater that partially floods the room—a stark contrast to the milky-white crystal of its walls. At the center of the room is a glass pillar, rising 4’ from the water and topped by a sittingfigure in rotting gold brocade robes. Apricot-sized orbs of fire orbit the figure’s head.

Note tha the first two sentences are you need immediately, the room before the room, so to speak. You scan them, run them, and move on. That leaves three sentences left for the DM to scan. We get the drop, the blackwater flood, the most obvious things, first, with the walls a close second and the then the piller and sitting figure. The order you need things in. A long crawl down. A 3’ square. Both evocative. Blackwater partially flodding The contrast to the milfy white crystal walls. A GLASS pillar. ROTTING gold robes. Orbs or fire. ORBITIING instead of circling .Note the word choices and how they work together. Good Job.

This is $7.50 at DriveThru.The preview is 30 pages. More than enough to get a sense of the world and the dungeon and the formatting and layout style and determine if its a fit for you. Good job!

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36 Responses to Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier

  1. Sevenbastard says:

    This looks great hopefully it will be POD soon.

  2. Gus L. says:


    Thanks for the review – I am glad Tomb Robbers felt like it worked to you, and your critiques are appreciated, helpful and frankly something I’ve been experimenting with in a follow up, but also I wasn’t sure if the play style/design would be one you’d approve of. The design gist of Tomb Robbers is that it’s written for short online sessions, and various time saving/short seession/online session modifications to the basic exploration procedures and rules that I’ve used for a long time and which came out of mid period G+ OSR, a lot of them worked out by Necropraxis: slot encumbrance, hazard/overloaded encounter die, abstracted movement rates and such.

    My take is that to design for short online sessions while retaining the no camping in the dungeon rule dungeons need to be accessible from more then one place (Tomb Robbers should have more entrances I admit) and be extremely interactive and dense. The hazard die puts supply exhaustion to the forefront, and something will happen every turn, so the party has a limited exploration time (as do the players). As a designer it makes sense to cram every room with something, even if it’s just time wasting dungeon dressing. Writing keys for this though, and it’s compounded when one moves from vernacular fantasy setting to something off-Gygaxian like the Crystal Frontier (Renaissance psychedelic cosmic horror Western?) is space consuming. Npbody has time for huge keys, so it is a dangerous balancing act. I also can’t write orc’s in a hole, grey corridor, Gygaxian stuff – I just pass out after one mescal. More importantly it traumatizes and enrages the fresh meat, who associate that stuff with 5E superhero combat games. Finally, I am a rather verbose writer (No shit) … so a lot of credit to Nick and Ava for the edits – get an editor folks, and one that knows RPGs. What this means it that I think you’re right, it’d be hard to make a mega-dungeon in this style (though I’m working on it – I got schemes – mostly involving lots of entrances).

    Anyway, always appreciate your thoughts, and review. I raise a glass to your diligent reviewing and feel proud that you enjoyed Crystal Frontier. There’s a few smaller locations related to this already, and more should be on the way if I don’t get distracted by Napoleonic tuber people wargames.

    By the way, I sadly can’t claim the sentence you quote about Scarlet Town (the crappy crystal prospecting boom town here) – it’s from J.W. Buell, an absolute hack pulp adventure/western writer of the late 19th century (who also wrote some popularizations of Norse myths … WTF). Absurd purple prose, his later work is often in photo books published by Western US chambers of commerce “Come to balmy Sacramento and pick up gold of the ground!”, but this is from some penny dreadful about Buffalo Bill I think? Totally stolen without accreditation, as J.W. Buell would do himself.

    I also hope that Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier stands as an example of how you can use art, layout, and design to present a pre-1980’s style dungeon crawl play style without absolute fidelity to the Gygaxian model and setting. Maybe even add some usability for modern audiences and conditions.

    • Anonymous says:

      You are ecstatic at the positive review, a different face then the usual bitter smugness. Will you not consider abandoning your resentful and evil friends, who will end up trying to cancel tenfootpole if they get the chance, and rejoin us in the light of Oldschool D&D?

  3. Tamás Illés says:

    I’ve been eyeing with this one for a while, mostly because of its awesome cover. Your review gave me the final push needed to buy it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Wasn’t this already reviewed, or does it jus have the same cover as a previous adventure? Or am I getting senile?

    • oTTo says:

      There are other Crystal Frontier adventures written by Gus, that Bryce has reviewed here. Maybe you are thinking of one of them?

  5. Reason says:

    Anybody played in the crystal frontier? How did it go?

    I gather it’s not a fully formed setting, maybe a blog post or two- or is it more described in the first adventure set there?

    • Gus L. says:

      I do hope someone has tried? I would love to hear about it. About 2/5 of the book is setting/local town stuff to give the referee a start on a sort of dungeon boom town in the wastes setting, also magical items and a crystal space elf spell book/list. I’d say the setting elements are pretty light ultimately. It’s no gazetteer. However, the dungoen (like the short dungeons I’ve released for the same setting) can stand alone. If it seems weird (and it’s just magical crystal based OSHA violations and space elves – not even approaching barrier peaks levels of bizarre…) it’s a crystal tomb that fell from space into the wasteland region of your choice. The play tester that used it in their long-term campaign (4th level PCs are still at risk, but much much better at gathering the copious treasures) used it like this – a meteor to explore.

      So I’ve tried to split the difference, others will have to decide if I’m successful. There’s a bunch of setting material, but it tends towards more swords & sorcery with a Renaissance Western feel then science fantasy, so it’s not entirely incompatible with most vanilla. Design and the number of things you want to trick rather then fight is greater then standard I think, but that’s not a aesthetic/setting consideration so much as a play style one. I’ve tried to stick to the OD&D style of stocking, where your level one dungeon can have gargoyles, wraiths and ogres in it.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Bryce you have not liked something with so few keyed encounters that is this long since operation unfathomable and that was in another time another world. You discuss it a bit but is it true you don’t have to be terse all the time? Its just hard to do?

    • Tamás Illés says:

      For the sake of clarity, the 18 keyed areas are described on pages 12-32. They are not OSE terse, but not too dense either.

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      I don’t know that there are ANY “you MUST!” rules. Well, ok, it must be usable by the DM at the table? After that, there are just trends. It’s easier to be usable if its terse, I think, especially for a new designer that doesn’t have their feet under them yet. But, no, there are no hard rules.

  7. squeen says:

    Sounds like a great product…I am tempted to pick it up. Gus’ art is avant-garde fun too.

    I just don’t understand the Gygax hate. Vault of the Drow was just as imaginative and gonzo. Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun eerily good. Just because Greyhawk provided a stable human-centric base, did not imply the weird and the odd were totally absent. The contrast actually enhances the fantastic and opposed to normalizing it.

    To put it another way, who’s going to buy the fantastic crystal you found in the dungeon/palace when they’ve got one growing out the side of their arm?

    I read a recent critique of 90’s comic books that resonated with over-use of the bizarre in D&D: “When everyone was Wolverine—no one was Wolverine.”

    I think Gygax got the balance right. It was the hacks that immediately followed that made it seem banal, repetitive, and kitsch.

    • squeen says:

      Formulaic. That was the word I was searching for. Bad D&D is formulaic.

    • squeen says:

      It seems I’m going to keep replying to my own comment!

      Gus makes the point in his comment (above) about how he’s aiming for on-line play. I think adventures intended for that environment might have a shorter fuse.

      There is no room for a slow-burning subplot or a long lead-up…or, heck, even prepping an epic battle of mass combat… in the Age of Short Attention Spans.

    • The problem with high concept writing and weirdness is that it is often employed as a shortcut, a stylistic disguise for structural weaknesses. Gygax progresses from vanilla to weird. The would-be inheritors of his legacy start at weird and would be unable to produce a normal material that is worth anything.

      Similarly, open disdain for one’s forerunners is often the product of resentment, the plain girl hating the fair, hoping that by disparagement she may gain what cannot be obtained through grace.

      • Gnarley Bones says:

        Yea verily.

        And let me clear that I picked this item up as I have all of his work. I grok his writing abd I can report that they play as well as they read. I don’t understand the incessant need to try to knock the Platonic ideal. It is what it is. Gus’s works gain nothing by these petty efforts at punching up and likely lose him him purchasers who would otherwise enjoy his work.

    • Gus L. says:


      I’d offer that taking a look at the 40 page sample (containing the whole dungeon and set up but not the setting appendices) might answer your concerns. I will argue that the goal of adventures for shorter sessions is more an acknowledgement that most of us are adults with careers and families, scattered across the world these days and can’t run ten hour sessions all summer vacation long for our neighborhood buddies anymore.

      Also not sure where you get the idea I hate Gygax. I like OD&D over AD&D due to more intentional, streamilined rules especially for exploration, and a flatter power curve. I also don’t really enjoy the post 1979 or so TSR aesthetic, which Gygax invented, but which ossified by then into things like Forgotten Realms. Absolutely, Gygax is not my favorite designer and seems to have been a real litigious jerk of a man, but B2 and G1 are both worthy of examination/emulation, and his contributions to the hobby are foundational.

      What I won’t do is write nostalgic hierographies for Gygax, claim that the success of 5E is some kind corruption of an idyllic pure past, or blame newcomers trying to adapt contemporary playstyles to older rules with different aesthetics as the reason my preferred style of procedural dungeon crawls isn’t more popular. I aim for critical examination over veneration, innovation over stagnation, and advocacy with collaboration over reactionary rage. I also think you can do all these things quite well in the medium of vanillia fantasy if you want. I just like more Vance, Dunsany, Buck Rodgers, and Jorodowsky in my D&D vs. more Tolkien, Wheel of Time, and Ed Greenwood.

      • Anonymous says:

        Your criticisms of Gygax all seem pretty ill-informed and dumb, which I guess shouldn’t be too surprising

      • Anonymous says:


      • squeen says:

        A very generous preview! Thanks for that.

        On Gygax, I was just reacting to the words in your post “I also can’t write orc’s in a hole, grey corridor, Gygaxian stuff – I just pass out after one mescal.” There is something reactionary, boiling there under the surface of your words.

        I am reading in between the line a bit, but I think your stance is very generational. Youth wants to break free of the trappings of the past and reinvent to gain some ownership. I get that. Where’s the motivation to act, if you are told everything under the sun has been done?

        But you can also create new and wonderful stuff from a place of veneration of what came before. You’re an artist. Surly you have art-heroes that inspire you. It’s the same way with me and Gygax. Having lived through it, I rejected at first whiff the tripe that TSR and WotC put out after his departure. So, he’s more of a Walt Disney visionary to me than a ball-and-chain of conformity. He informs, but does not shackle, my creativity. Screw the zealots of the internet who try to use his words to build a prison.


        From there, good sir, I must move on to a more egregious matter. How dare you lump Tolkien in with Wheel of Time and Ed Greenwood!

        How could we have know that the true Dark Lord was in fact Peter Jackson, who twisted Tokien’s works into a dime-store romance novel of epic proportions? I remember seeing his Fellowship adaptation and thinking to myself, “Well, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but at least no one’s laughing at it.” Little did I know the evil he has wrought!

        I had loved Tolkien for for decades before it had every been made live-action, and even a few years before it was animated. LotR was covert, underground, a “precious” treasure very few knew about. His street-cred was as artsy elitist as citing “Vance, Dunsany, Buck Rodgers, and Jorodowsky” is now. When I started playing (OD&D…AD&D came out a bit after), our group of fringe-culture miscreants were looking for ways to get *more* Tolkien into D&D…not less. And by Tolkien, I mean Bombadil, Shelob, Moria, Sauron, etc….not hunky Legolas & Aargon.

        Curse you Peter Jaskson! You have forever sullied Tolkien’s legacy. Kids like Gus think he’s dull, safe and boring. The magic is gone. You turned it into gold for your New Zealand coffers.

      • Anonymous says:

        >advocacy with collaboration over reactionary rage
        bruh you were calling Courtney Campbell an alt-right lunatic for making an ACKS book

  8. Anonymous says:

    I Dont to wat to shade anyone but there is something about Gus that makes Prince snarky. Its way more civil than before but I got to say his comment was crafted with care and did of bug me. Its OK to not like Gyves for whater reason. Its all love here. Plus Gus has written well crafted articles on b series/ gygax thinga. Nobody does that out of this big shade that takes time yessss time is love and its all love here

    We like elfgames and sometimes octi tents

    • OSR Fundamentalist says:

      >Its all love here.
      I’m gonna need a citation backed by three scholarly sources brother

    • PrinceofNothing says:

      Gus has regrettably allied himself to the forces of Darkness and seeks by equivocation, lies, blacklisting and misdirection to reshape reality to his impossible ideals. He went into exile for 2 years ranting of invisible nazis and came back changed. You should regard him as a sort of Nazghul, a wraith that once was man, turning his sword on those he called brothers.

      Unlike most of his fellows in the dark brotherhood (former Zakpals I should note), he does still know how to write decent adventures. Unfortunately for him the awareness is starting to grow that the bulk of these online activists are absolutely rotten.

  9. Anonymous says:

    B Marleyyyy
    J Lennon
    B white?

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