Tagline: Return of the Eight is pathetic. The first Greyhawk product since the line was canceled, it suffers from trying to fill the needs of two diametrically opposed extremes.
This is the first time I really ripped a product to shreds. As a reviewer, there really is something incredibly satisfying about flaying a terrible product. In fact, you can easily see that some reviewers get so addicted to the hit of ripping into stuff that this becomes all that they do.
Hopefully, I’ve managed to keep a more balanced head on my shoulders over the years. But I’m also clearly not one of those namby-pambies who think reviewers should adhere to the already dubious maxim that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. If there is any profession where that maxim almost intrinsically does not apply, then it’s reviewing. I think you should be deeply suspicious of any reviewer who never has a bad thing to say.
Personally I looked forward with great anticipation to the return of the Greyhawk setting to the TSR line-up. When the line was canceled several years back I was among the protesters who thought this a bad idea. Greyhawk was your all-around “typical AD&D campaign world”, with good cause since it was one of the first. Its loss meant that you had very atypical settings (Ravenloft, Dark Sun, etc.), the super-powered Forgotten Realms, and the legend-oriented Dragonlance setting. Besides, there’s a lot of interesting stuff on Oerth – it may not have sold well in comparison to TSR’s other settings, but that might have had something to do with the fact that unlike the “three supplements a month” Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk was never adequately supported after Gygax’s departure from the company. Properly supported it would definitely, I thought (and continue to think), be a strong part of TSR’s line-up.
So when Peter Adkison and Wizards of the Coast announced that Greyhawk was to be brought back from the dead and properly supported I thought it was a great idea. When the product line was finally announced, I began looking forward eagerly to Return of the Eight, the first new Greyhawk product to be released since the line was canceled.
Having now read Return of the Eight I am bitterly disappointed, and have many unanswered questions, such as:
Why restart the Greyhawk setting with a module? Why use such terrible artwork? Why abandon all sensible lay-out? Why railroad the PCs? Why have caricatures for NPCs? Why abandon all logic in the final act? Why have an anticlimax? Why is there an elevator? But above all else…
What were they thinking?
WHAT YOU GET
Return of the Eight is a 64 page module written by Roger Moore. It begins in the city of Greyhawk a year after the end of the Greyhawk Wars. There’s a bunch of weird politics involved here, but you need a Greyhawk sourcebook which hasn’t been printed in half a decade in order to make sense of it all, so let’s cut to the chase: The Circle of Eight was a group of powerful wizards dedicated to fighting the good fight (these are the Good Guys). At the end of the Greyhawk Wars Ivid V (the Former Bad Guy) convinced one of the Eight (a bloke named Rary) to assassinate two other members of the Eight (Otiluke and Tenser). Simultaneously all of Tenser’s cloning material was destroyed, so he was really, really dead – there was no coming back this time. The really powerful wizard Mordenkainen even confirmed it through divination.
Which brings us to today when, naturally, Tenser is going to show up again. The Circle of Eight is attempting to reform itself and the PCs have the dubious pleasure of making acquaintances with one of them (a chick named Jallarzi). Now things get complicated again and you need that out-of-print sourcebook again. The demon Tuerny is involved in a plot with the witch Iggwilv and her son Iuz the Old (these are the Current Bad Guys). They corrupt Jallarzi and make it appear as if she has betrayed the Circle of Eight. Why they do this is never really explained, because the only thing it seems to accomplish is to lead the PCs and the Circle right to Tenser’s Castle – which is where these three hope to open a gate to one of Oerth’s moons and bring through their army within quick striking distance of the defenseless City of Greyhawk. Needless to say, the PCs go to Tenser’s Castle, go through the gate, and beat the bad guys.
Did I mention that for another unknown reason the Current Bad Guys activated Tenser’s cloning machinery on this moon of Oerth and cloned him, only to alter his clone into an extremely ugly, mute, blue-skinned midget? No? Well, I won’t. It’s too painful.
The first odd thing that struck me about this product was the lay-out. The text is a nice, reasonably sized font and the margins aren’t too bad (the left, right, and bottom margins average less than an inch – but the top margin is about 3″ for no particular reason except that it allows them to interchange three repetitive sets of graphics over and over and over again).
But then it gets weird. If you’ve ever seen a GURPS manual you know exactly what this text in this module looks like – two columns, one narrow and the other wide. Except that in Return of the Eight that narrow column isn’t a sidebar – it’s just another column. Yes, that’s right – it’s two column text, but for no apparently good reason the columns are different widths. (What’s even more confusing is that after the first five pages the side on which the narrow column is located switches – I’m assuming this was just a lay-out error that nobody bothered to notice or fix.)
I initially thought someone had discovered that their word processing program could vary the widths of two-column text and thought, “Whoa! Cool!” and just hadn’t thought things through. What I learned later on was that all of the Greyhawk product line was to be laid out this way in order to give it a “distinctive look”.
This is even worse. There is nothing “distinctive” about this look – it looks just like a GURPS book. Except that in a GURPS book it actually serves a purpose!
(This plan has since been dropped because TSR’s customers pointed out that it was a really dumb layout technique. It will still infect the first few Greyhawk products, however.)
The art in Return of the Eight is atrocious. The cover is not only downright ugly it is flat-out stupid – depicting the short, blue midget we will learn is actually Tenser inside grabbing onto the skirt of a buxom woman fighter (at least she isn’t wearing a chainmail bikini) and a male fighter with his shield and sword raised against this tiny, pathetic, blue midget. Meanwhile in the background about two feet away from the male fighter is a ten foot tall demon with four foot fangs. HELLO?! I don’t think the blue midget is the biggest problem you’re facing at this moment.
The interior art is no better. The poses are stiff and are helped little by the fact that the subject matter is so utterly boring and atrocious.
The plot focuses on several key points:
1. The PCs must meet Jallarzi, her friend Marial, her pseudo-dragon Edwina, and another wizard named Warnes Starcoat all in the same evening in an amazingly contrived sequence.
2. One of the PCs must be hit on the head by Edwina falling out of the sky, which will lead to them discovering she was attacked, which will lead them to Jallarzi’s Tower.
3. The PCs must explore Jallarzi’s Tower.
4. The PCs must must go to Tenser’s Castle (not that anything they discovered in Jallarzi’s Tower will actually lead them to go there – they will be informed by Warnes that it is “obvious” they should go).
5. The PCs must must go through the gate to Oerth’s moon (not that they will have any clue why this is important).
6. The PCs must must defeat the Current Bad Guys and thwart their plans (not that there is any way for them to know who the Bad Guys are or what their plans were until after it’s all over).
As you may have gathered from all the “musts” above this is a fairly contrived plotline. It is made worse by the fact that Moore doesn’t even bother in many cases with pretexts to carry the PCs from one event to the next – they are either forced into the encounter (it just happens – for example, Edwina hits them on the head with no if’s, and’s, or but’s) or a handy NPC will say “go this way”.
Even odder to me is the transition between Act Two and Act Three – where the players leave Tenser’s Castle through a gate that takes them one of Oerth’s moons. Previously these PCs have been railroaded from one location and event to another, suddenly however there is no good explanation given for what happens. The gate in question is tucked in a back room of the keep and no particular importance is attached to it. In addition, Moore has gone out of his way to make it difficult to get through the gate – anyone entering the room is blown right back out again unless they really fight against it by the mysterious power of the gate. The problem here is that since the gate is not discussed as being important, no mention of dimension travel is made prior to this in the adventure, and the PCs are heartily discouraged from exploring that particular avenue. So why should they? My players said, “Right, Tenser the Mighty Magician doesn’t want us in there… let’s trust him.” After they had completely cleaned out Tenser’s Castle and were beyond irritation into downright frustration I eventually had to say, “Look, you’ve got to go through this gate so we can finish playtesting the adventure.” At which point we all commented how stupid it was to attach no importance to the gate and then make it nigh-to-impossible to get through, despite the fact that going through it is crucial to finishing the adventure.
It was initially pointed out to me that perhaps this was because the product line is being targeted towards “Old School” gamers who aren’t really interested in plots or character motivations, but just in dungeon-delving. I considered this awhile and then realized two things.
First, the “dungeons” (a Tower and a Keep) are pathetic for dungeon-delving – although there are several creature encounters that make no sense whatsoever. (How Tenser or Jallarzi live or lived in the places that are supposedly their homes is beyond me.)
Second, the plot revolves around highly complicated political intrigue that you need footnotes to figure out (particularly since the PCs will never be informed of what the hell is going on until it’s all over).
Perhaps it suffers from trying to be both — a story-oriented adventure, but with all the trappings of classic dungeon-delving. Whatever the case, it is among the worst examples of either I have ever seen.
Now we come to another design flaw of the product – the location of the maps (as well as the occasional absence of maps).
First there is a map of the first floor of Jallarzi’s Tower inside the front cover, and a map of the second and third floors inside the back cover. These are very nicely done – detailed and highlighted in a style reminiscent of watercolors. On page 10 we have an exterior view of Jallarzi’s Tower, showing us what it looks like and how it all fits together – this little illustration tells us that the tower has six floors. We can only hope that the PCs never attempt to venture beyond the third floor because not only are no details of these floors provided, but no maps are either.
Moving onto Tenser’s Castle is where we begin to encounter serious problems. The castle and the approach to the castle are detailed in 8 maps scattered throughout the text describing various locations in the castle. This would be really handy… if whoever had placed the maps had done so with some relation to the text. Indeed, the order of the maps proceeds very naturally (1st through 7th floor, than the lower levels in order).
LOOK FOR THEM WHERE?
My other favorite trick with Return of the Eight is the manner in which they reference OOP products as if everyone had them. This feature of TSR’s modules (telling you where to find the complete write-ups for the monsters and NPCs they provide iterative stats for) is usually quite handy, allowing you to find out more information. I found it quite infuriating, however, when no useful information is given to me (requiring me to look it up if I am to use the creature or NPC in question) and the references point me towards:
Greyhawk Adventures. A 1st edition product that has been out of print for at least a decade.
The guide from the 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set.
The Rogue’s Gallery. A 1980 product that no one has ever heard of.
Monster Manual II. A first edition product that has been out of print since 1989.
The oddest reference was to either The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga (1995) or “The Dancing Hut”, from Dragon issue #83 (March 1984). Not only is it an odd reference, but it’s completely outside of Greyhawk.
The worst reference? D&D Original Set Supplement III, Eldritch Wizardry. Although you could also look that one up in the first edition DMG as well.
There are other examples as well, but they usually aren’t so bad – pointing to products which were still produced just before Greyhawk went defunct, or which discussed the monster or NPC in enough detail that I did not actually need the reference. What puzzled me most was that the more likely it was that the reader would actually own the material in question, the more detail was given in the text. The more obscure the reference, the less information given.
LOOK UP AT THE SKY STUPID!
Act III, as already noted, takes place on one Oerth’s moons. The DM is cautioned multiple times and in great severity to not let the players in on this secret – do not tell them explicitly that they are no longer on Oerth, and only “let them slowly discover they are not” there.
My first reaction to this was: “If someone dropped me on a moon the first thing I’m going to notice is looking up into the sky and saying, ‘Hmmm… I wonder why there’s a big planet hanging up there instead of the moon I’m used to.’”
In Tenser’s castle there is an elevator. It is referred to as “The Great Lift”, but it is operated by pushing a button and it even has a chime. About the only thing that is missing is a set of bombs to take out the cables, and another set to take out the breaks if someone doesn’t pay a million dollar ransom.
Maybe the sequel to Return of the Eight will feature Teurny, Iggwilv, and Iuz planting a magical bomb on a chariot. If the chariot drops below 10 mph…
In a fantasy setting.
What were they thinking?
About the best thing you can say about Return of the Eight is that they were attempting to appeal to two very dichotomous groups of gamers – the role-oriented gamers and the hack-oriented gamers (and the latter should not be taken as an insult) – and they failed.
The worst thing you can say about Return of the Eight is…
What were they thinking?
This is an abysmal way to re-introduce the Greyhawk line (about the only thing I can figure out is that they though it would be “cool” to have product with the word “return” in the title to signal the “return of Greyhawk”). I have much higher hopes for future products in the line, but this is not a good start.
Stay away from this product. You’ll do nothing but waste $14 that could have been spent on something far more worth your while.
Title: Greyhawk: Return of the Eight
Writers: Roger Moore
Publisher: TSR/Wizards of the Coast
Page Count: 64
Originally Published: 1998/07/29
I actually don’t mind a little science fantasy in my D&D fantasy. I’ve always been a fan of Tekumel and S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks currently appears in my OD&D hexcrawl campaign, for example. But I do tend to like it to possess a strong fantasy flavor (like Monte Cook’s chaositech, for example). And that elevator from Return of the Eight still sticks in my craw. I think the problem is that it’s such a wholehearted anachronism. I don’t have any problem with the idea of Tenser having a floating platform in the middle of his citadel — he is, after all, the creator of Tenser’s floating disc — but for it to literally be a modern elevator just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
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