By Nickolas Zachary Brown Five Cataclysms OSR Levels: Mid to High?
This place sits on the border between the mundane world and the world of machines. It is a horrendous mishmash of metal mechanical components, contorted and broken and pressed to form this recognizable-but-alien cavern reeking of oil. This is a place where machine life is the norm, and biological meatbags are unwelcome, prone to a toxic demise. Many creatures found here are parodies of biological life, while yet others have discarded all such trappings for a pure mechanical state. Terrible screeches and clanking and whirring of horrible entities echo through these cavernous chambers. In these twisting halls of metal, there are treasures to be plundered, for where metal abounds, there’s sure to be gold.
This 57 page adventure presents a dungeon sub-level for the Descent into Madness, machine themed, with around 130 rooms(!) It recreates the bizarro vibe of a megadungeon sub-level perfectly. I wish there were more of this in my life.
First off, the keys on this thing start on page seven and run till the end. Absofuckinglutly! Not counting the cover, there are two pages of bs in this: the “how to read a monster stat block” and an overview/pretexts for visiting page. What’s that? You wanted to buy a dungeon adventure, not a belly itcher? Well congratulations, this fucking thing is a dungeon. The designer is NOT fucking around. The keys start almost immediately, after a robust wanderers table. WHo are doing things. What sorts of things? Well, three busty steel crustations challenge the party to a dance off, by pointing at them with a claw and then doing a little dance. If you win, you get a loyal metal-crab follower. Uh, ok. How about s party of robots, cosplaying as adventurers? Including healer and torchbearer, all dressed up?
Oh, I’m sorry Mr Hoity Toity stick-up-your-ass D&D player, is that too farcical for you? First, maybe go play Harn. Second, I cherry picked a couple of examples. This is not a joke adventure, or weird for the sake of being weird. The weirdness here is that of the megadungeon sub-level, which has, I think, always been allowed a little room for farce. Mostly, this is a pretty normal dungeon level, albeit machine themed, with a little farce tossed in. Anyone who has spent a lot of hours writing knows how things can get a little crazy sometimes, in your head, and sometimes that translates to the page. That’s what’s going on here.
Mostly, though, this is a metal and oil sublevel. With a decent number of fleshy folks hanging out. And by flesh folks I mean a wizard in a gemstone, all magic jar style. And a level 20 wizard with a sawed off shotgun. And a whole host of others gathered round for good time.
There’s a little robo-town, with mostly friendly robots in it. And, a carousing table. A CUSTOM carousing failure table. Something that I’m convinced, now, having seen it in this adventure, needs to be in every adventure with a decently weird town. You ate some rusty gears. They were probably soaked in buffalo sauce. Ill for a couple of days. I love this. It really brings tha added flavour of the site.
And, that’s what you’re after, right? An adventure that really leans in to the flavour of a site? That makes it come alive? That makes you feel it? And this one kind of does that. The encounters are all delightfull. The initial descriptions terse and, while not award winning, decent enough. Generally. I could do with fewer “appears to be “ and “you see”, ut, they ARE few and far between. Each entry gets a line or two. A few words will be bolded in it and there will bebolded section headings under that to detail those things. Effective enough. The descriptions, proper, are ok. “Metal crabs clamber over the floors and the walls, tending to their little eggs in little pools in craters throughout the room. The corpse of some metallic creature, likely a fish, sits in the middle of the room. Something strange is attached to its head, tube shaped with a crystal tip.” So, ok. Not great, but ok. I do think it falls down in “general vibes.” Like a lot of adventures it has a section up front that says something like “walls are made of metal, full of studs and rivits, with the smell of oil and dripping” or something similar. Meh. I don’t think hat really ends up working, room after room, to convey hte vibe. I’m not mad at it, but I don’t think it helps much either. A stronger room description, or putting things on the map page, would be in order, I think. Or in the margins? SOmething to help bring the window dressing more forward.
I’m a fan of this. Interactivity is solid. Things to stab, talk to, and interact with. Pools to be drained. Monoliths to fuck with. And situations to be puzzled out, hopefully to the parties advantage. “Rhudahn – An armored angry entity of fire, kept suppressed in a nitrogen prison.” Hope you play that one right, Mr Party. Or, how about “In the center of this triangular room is a red- metal altar, covered in all sorts of barbs and hooks. Atop it is a bloody-red orb, an indentation within suited for a hand to lay upon. Hanging from the walls are more hooks, barbs, spikes, and other instruments of flagellation.” Who wants to fuck with that thing? (Me, I do. I’m DYING to!)
This really conjures the charm of old school D&D. Deadly, interesting. Varied. A little weird. This is what D&D is made of. Sure, it could be a lot more polished. But, also, that content is GOLD.
This is $5 at DriveThru. Alas, the preview is broken 🙁
Sounds jolly good! Great to see something that’s not just a joyless bundle of failure, or a misguided attempt at creating ART.
From your description, it seems like a decent fit for Anomalous Subsurface Environment in both theme and scope. Am I off the mark here, or would it work out in that context? Since ASE is unfinished, people might find it quite useful.
Thinking of, soul-killing pit of ennui may be a decent encounter concept.
Sounds a little fun-house for my tastes (albeit a thematically-consistent one, which is nice). Regardless, kudos to the author for knocking it out of the park!
Great review Bryce! Thanks! Insta-buy.
I’m buying this just so I can find out what a “busty steel crustation” is.
I know what a crusty steel bus station is but
Five to one it’s actually “rusty” not “busty.”
“r” is nowhere close to “b” on the keyboard though…
Author here – they are definitely busty. What you do with that knowledge is up to you!
I love the ase idea
One of the true we need to get this finished
Dude is playing again and i have seen blog posts
I would say fight on Megadungeon is also an option for spuring
I’d never in a million years go anywhere near this thing for a D&D type campaign. Don’t get me wrong. I like a little funhouse. I like a little weird but the mechanical theme isn’t something that I want in D&D. It’s a little too out there for me. I guess I’ll go play Harn as Bryce suggests.
On the other hand, could I use this in a post apoc game? Oh hells yeah! Absolutely. I also like tying it in with ASE. Good thoughts there
Truly, this is very 70’s OD&D.
I guess I will have to research that because I don’t remember all this mech in OD&D as presented in the 70s
Castle Greyhawk had a Machine Level (designed by Rob Kuntz), so it goes way back. To be fair, it was not published, only mentioned as an example of what you can do in dungeons.
The Beholder did a space-ship level, as did White Dwarf. There was definetely more weird science fantasy or anachronistic stuff in the early days then in the latter period.
Reading that, I remembered that there was a WD module about a buried spaceship (in the snow, perhaps?). Can’t find it now. I loved it at the time.
B1 Search for the Unknown. Starship Warden and the frogmouth
Sorry not B1 but Expedition to Barrier Peaks.
This is pure D&D imo. Literally fits perfectly as a demiplane of Mechanus (home of the Modrons)
It’s a one to file away for sure. If I ever run ASE again, I’m going to lean into the nice bits of “personality” that gives to Robots on level 1, then use this instead of level 2.
I could also see it working with Systema Tartarobasis I think…
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. John Carter of Mars creatures in the original overland encounter charts. NPC gnomes when they’re not illusionists. DMG mention of crossovers with Boot Hill and Gamma World. Modrons already mentioned.
Great review Bryce! Thanks! Insta-buy.
Oh, I just noticed you also reviewed The Sunken Fort and it got a The Best (and insta-buy from me!)
THEN I noticed you’ve reviewed a ton of Five Cataclysms stuff (from 2017-2020): https://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?s=Five+Cataclysms
Almost all of them got The Best, too!
Bryce before: REEEEEEE!!! Funhouse! Ren Faire! REEEEEEE!!!
Bryce now: Gushing about a 20th-level wizard with a shotgun.
Consistency and standards have left the building.
the entrance to this place is something like 50 rooms deep in a larger gigadungeon literally called ‘descent into madness’ that gets weirder the deeper you go so it stands to reasons that at some point, everyone is going to be like “Nah, imma turn back”
I never even got around to writing the ‘Prismatic Palace’ with its golden alpaca gods and prismatic greatswords.
I think my players would probably be like ‘Mmmm, this doesn’t feel like D&D, did we switch systems?’. Looks good for something like Mutant Future or the like though.
I guess it depends what you want out of D&D. Something like this is, for me, a bridge too far for what I would consider to be a typical D&D game experience. For others, this represents a OD&D-type ideal that many love and want to emulate. Of course, “D&D” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. That’s the strength and beauty of the system. You can do so much with it because it’s so flexible.
I don’t mind some weird and wacky elements in my games but that’s those elements are the exception, not the rule. I don’t need robots rubbing elbows with magic users on a daily basis. I don’t need a western gunfighter facing off with an archer. I don’t need a fighter walking around with a Thompson sub-machine gun. I’d much rather create a separate gonzo-type setting/game for that stuff.
I think the machine level was published at gary con kinda recently!
Who makes the Tin-men in Wizard of OZ? Tick-Tock the army of OZ and the Woodsman