The Alexandrian

Tagline: The classic dungeon crawl designed by the master of dungeon crawls, Gary Gygax.

Tomb of Horrors - Gary GygaxThe Tomb of Horrors module is one of the great classics in our little industry. It would be truly surprising to me if someone who has been playing RPGs for more than a handful of years would not have heard of this module, if not played in it or run it themselves.

The Tomb of Horrors was first released in 1978, as one of the first modules available for the AD&D game, after being used for the Official D&D tournament at the very first Origins convention. Recently it has been re-released as part of The Return to the Tomb of Horrors boxed set and can be obtained there if you can’t track it down through the used section of your local game store.

At the time it was published this was a fairly innovative product. In addition to the “map and key” presentation which was standard at the time, Tomb of Horrors also came with a pamphlet of forty illustrations – each presenting some part of the module which could be shown to the players at the appropriate time. This was cutting edge stuff at the time. Honest.

By all merits this should be an absolutely awful product by current standards – substandard writing, sub-par art, and a linear plot. Okay, I take that last one back: There is no plot, just a bunch of rooms full of traps and monsters.

Despite all this, though, there’s something about the Tomb of Horrors which still tantalizes me. Part of it is the fact it’s a classic. Like Queen of the Demonweb Pits it’s one of those things which “every” gamer has experienced at some point. There’s a sense of history to it, which adds to the experience. The other part of this is that sometimes you just got kick up your heels and take a brief detour visit back to your youth. In other words: Hack ‘n slash can be fun if you’re looking for hack ‘n slash.

The Tomb of Horrors was and remains a classic not because it dots all the i’s and crosses all of the t’s of what the current popular consensus of roleplaying is (or even of the type of roleplaying I enjoy most of the time), but because it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.

So when you’re looking for a quick one-shot relax from your normally roleplay-intensive campaigns, you might want to look back at an old classic once in awhile. It can’t hurt anything. Actually, I’m thinking about adapting it to FUDGE for a quick run sometime real soon. See you there.

Style: 2
Substance: 3

Author: Gary Gygax
Company/Publisher: TSR / Wizards of the Coast
Cost: n/a
Page count: 50
ISBN: 0-935696-12-1
Originally Posted: 1999/02/17

This review is another example of how 3rd Edition and the OSR have rehabilitated first D&D and then old school D&D in the RPG community. There are, of course, still haters out there. (There are always haters.) But even I occasionally have difficulty appreciating just how much “D&D Sucks” was the received wisdom of the online RPG community pre-2000.

I was no exception (nor am I now): AD&D is a terrible game and there are many, many reasons why I stopped playing it. But I did recognize that there was a fun game hiding away inside of AD&D, and this review was basically an attempt on my part to say, “Hey! There’s fun to be had over here!”

Several years later, my own adaptation of Tomb of Horrors to 3rd Edition became one of the earliest additions to the website. Check it out. It’s still a ton of fun.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Review: Isle of the Unknown

February 21st, 2012

Isle of the Unknown - Geoffrey McKinneyTake a moment to consider this:

A four-legged pigeon is the size of an apatosaurus, and in combat a display of feathers rises behind the creature’s head. (…) At will, the giant pigeon can shape-shift into a giant yellow spider.

If that sort of thing — along with 7′ tall parrots who are always on fire and 12′ long blue jays without legs — sounds interesting and useful to you, then you’re going to love Isle of the Unknown. If it doesn’t, however, then you’re probably going to be struggling to find much utility between its covers.

Isle of the Unknown presents an interesting contrast to Carcosa (Geoffrey McKinney’s other deluxe hexcrawl product from Lamentations of the Flame Princess). Unlike the bland and boring key entries for Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown — which describes an island roughly 150 miles wide — is generally specific, clever, and creative. Unfortunately, it presents a very different set of problems which, nevertheless, cripple the product for me.

First, there are the monsters. Although occasionally spiced with some interesting abilities, they really are giant pigeons all the way down: Pick a random animal. Make it bigger than normal. Randomly determine the number of limbs it possesses. Now, randomly combine it with another animal; light it on fire; have it ooze pus; or give it a random spell-like ability. Ta-Da! You’ve re-created the vast majority of the monsters in this book.

Giant Pigeon - Isle of the UnknownSecond, although in a hex-to-hex comparison Isle of the Unknown is much improved compared to Carcosa, in totality it ends up being just as bland by over-saturating its themes.

Let me explain: I think themes are very important in creating interesting hexcrawl or dungeoncrawl keys. Themes give a location its identity and make it memorable. Without a proper theme, a ‘crawl turns into a random funhouse. But if a theme is too narrow and relied on too heavily, then it becomes repetitive. (For example, enchanted vales which remain perpetually in springtime regardless of the weather outside simply stop being magical when there are something like a dozen of them scattered around the island.)

In the case of Isle of the Unknown, McKinney describes the scope of his key like this:

To aid the Referee, only the weird, fantastical, and magical is described herein. The mundane is left to the discretion of the campaign Referee, to be supplied according to the characteristics of his own conceptions or campaign world. Detailed encounter tables (for example) of French knights, monks, pilgrims, etc. would be of scant use to a Referee whose campaign world is a fantasy version of pre-Colombian America. Similar considerations led to the exclusion of most proper names.

Couple important things to understand about this: First, it’s untrue. The key includes a lot of “mundane” detail (most notably all the major communities on the island). Second, it’s nonsense. You can’t say “if I don’t give this guy a proper name, then it’ll be easy to slot him in as a pre-Colombian American” and then describe him as “a robust and jovial man of middle years with blue eyes and curling reddish hair and beard (…) he loves nothing so much as the hunt, save perhaps his dozen Scottish Deerhounds”.

What McKinney really means is that 95% of his hex key is going to be broken down into three categories: Monsters, Magical Statues, and high-level Magic-Users/Clerics who all live by themselves as bucolic hermits.

And on an individual level, most of this content is at least interesting. But if you attempted to actually run a hexcrawl using this hex key, the result would be incredibly boring due to its repetition: “Magic statue, bucolic hermit, bucolic hermit, giant parrot, magic statue, humanoid bluejay, magic statue, magic statue…”

So, ultimately, I’m forced to conclude that the book is not very useful in its intended function as a hexcrawl. However, it may have some value as an inefficiently organized bestiary and the like… but only if you like giant, flaming parrots.

In closing, it must be noted that, once again, Lamentations of the Flame Princess have created a book which is both beautiful and useful. Although completely different in its aesthetic from Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown is nevertheless gorgeous: Excellent illustrations, rich lay-out, high-quality paper, durable binding. (My only caveat would be that the map of the island, while very pretty, does not clearly identify the terrain type in each hex. From a utility standpoint, that’s a fatal flaw in a hexcrawl product.)

Style: 5
Substance: 3

Star Trek: New Frontier - MartyrI was thinking about writing a full and proper review of the Star Trek: New Frontier novels by Peter David. It was not necessarily going to be a review full of sunshine and happy thoughts (the prose and plotting are both sloppy; the characters are frequently off-model; the exposition is clumsy and redundant; the continuity is inconsistent and contradictory), but I was certainly enjoying them as pulp fiction.

But having just finished the fifth book (Martyr) I’m afraid I’ve hit the straw that broke my back:

Robin Lefler’s mother was kidnapped by an alien race called the Momidiums? Her MOM was kidnapped by the MOM-idiums?

No. Sorry. After a book filled with clumsy puns, you have officially crossed the line from “eye-rolling” to “Cheap Xanth Knock-Off”. And I want no part of it.

Tagline: Final Fantasy VII is the best CRPG to have hit the market since the last installment of the Ultima series. Although the plot is railroaded, that’s not really the point – the story is excellent, the characters touch your heart, the gameplay is engaging, and the interface is intuitive and simple, but also powerful. This game is addictive.

Final Fantasy VIINormally I’m fairly skeptical concerning computer roleplaying games. Of all the games I have ever played only the Ultima series of games ever really succeeded. It succeeded because Richard Garriott, the creator of the Ultima series, designed a series of games which slowly became more and more adept at modeling the real world. Because people behaved the way real people do (with varying daily schedules, speech patterns, and personalities), because no problem possessed a single solution (with a set of rules behind world interactions, allowing you to blow a door up if you can’t find the key to it), because there was more than one course which could be followed (with a deep, intriguing plot with sundry subplots and side plots included), because you got to really care about your traveling companions. For all these reasons and more it is easy when playing the Ultima series of games to simply let yourself slip into the role of the Avatar. Does it allow the same breadth as face-to-face gaming? No. But it does allow roleplaying, and it does give you some things which face-to-face gaming cannot. The Ultima series acknowledges its weaknesses and exploits its strengths. It may not be better at what paper-and-pencil roleplaying can do, but it isn’t a paper-and-pencil roleplaying game so I respect these games for doing what they do – you can’t expect a computer game to do the same things a traditional RPG does; nor should you try.

Now, here comes the surprise. Final Fantasy VII is a highly successful game, despite the fact that it fails to do almost everything which the Ultima series does so well. The world of FF7 is contrived, the plot is almost completely linear, and multiple solutions do not exist in most cases. But FF7 does do one thing right: It presents characters who you can care about, characters with distinct (although sometimes cliched) personalities. As an almost direct result FF7 succeeds; and it helps that although the plot is linear, it is a very interesting and dynamic plot. You shouldn’t approach FF7 so much as a roleplaying game as a movie in which you have some partial control over the main character.

THE GOOD STUFF

I’ve already pointed out a couple of things. The main strengths of this game are, in my opinion, the plot and the characters – which are really intertwined with each other. There were points in this game where I felt genuine sadness and genuine joy as the plot and the characters developed. This, more than anything else, was what made the game very addictive to me.

Another major strength of the game lies in the graphic department. The visuals are highly anime-influenced, imaginative, and effective. Definitely a treat, especially the magic spells.

Finally, this game has a fantastic interface. It was originally designed for the Sony Playstation before being later translated onto the computer (which is where I played it). Everything is controlled through a series of intuitive menus which are accessed from the numeric keypad. A template to lay over the keypad comes with the game, but you won’t need it for long – the controls are easily learned and, once committed to memory, the entire system is easily memorized. Players will find the combat system, in particular, to be highly entertaining – it’s abstracted, but this allows for a great deal of strategic planning which I find difficult to obtain in other games where the chaos of the battlefield usually means I have no chance to control what my characters are doing.

This is a fairly powerful combination for a game to have: Intuitive, powerful gameplay; interesting characters; compelling plotline; and excellent graphics all in the same package? I should already have you sold. Why aren’t you out buying the game yet?

THE BAD STUFF

I’m a strong proponent of not judging a product on things which it is not attempting to do. Obviously you would never critique a hammer by saying “it’s not a screwdriver”, but in the area of creativity (such as novels, music, television, film, roleplaying games, or computer games) it is all too easy to slip into critiquing a product because it is not the type of product you happen to like. So, on that level, I don’t think FF7 has any serious weaknesses: It sets out to do exactly what it excels at accomplishing.

That being said, I should reiterate that this is not a “roleplaying game” in the sense that you are given a role which you are then allowed to control with broad parameters. In this game you are given a role, but the course along which you are allowed to guide that role is fairly proscribed when all is said and done. But saying “this game sucks because you aren’t allowed to control the characters” is similar to critiquing, say, Babylon 5 because you weren’t allowed to control the actions of Sheridan. FF7 resides somewhere between mediums (such as television or film) where you aren’t allowed any control over the characters and the mediums (such as roleplaying) where you are. Its important to judge the game on that ground, but I think it fair to warn off those who won’t find that type of entertainment, well, entertaining.

CONCLUSION

Buy this game. ‘Nuff said.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Company/Publisher: Squaresoft / EIDOS
Originally Posted: 1999/02/17

This review was first published thirteen years ago almost to the day. That’s really kind of weirding me out. Interesting how times turn, though: I’ve actually been replaying FF7 on my PS3 the past couple of weeks.

I know it’s cliche for people to say SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER was the first time they cried because of a video game. It wasn’t mine (Ultima VII: Serpent Isle beat it by half a decade), but it remains one of the most memorable moments in any fictional medium for me. There is a very fine art to putting me on rails in a video game and yet getting me to completely invest myself in the character: The experience is more akin to acting than to roleplaying, but when it succeeds it can be very, very powerful. And in FF7 it succeeded brilliantly.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

This is the fourth in a series of biographical profiles from alternate histories.
Go to Part 1

Megan Le Fey, Second Sister of King Arthur

Thirty years before the Rise of Camelot there was born to the Duke of Tintagel and his wife, Igrayneh, twin daughters. One was named Morgan and the other was named Megan, the youngest of four sisters. Seven years later the Duke would be killed in battle while his nemesis, Uther Pendragon, came to his wife’s bed – mystically enchanted by the magician Merlin so as to assume the appearance of the Duke and so beguile the devoted Ingrayneh. In triumph Uther married Igrayneh and from their ignoble union was born Arthur.

Arthur’s youth is well known, but the fate of his half sisters is less so. Following Uther’s rise to power they were sent away from their mother and into marriage. Morgan was married to a northern lord. Megan was sent across the sea. Both, as if bound by the ties of birth, studied magic, earning for themselves the title of “Le Fey”. But where Morgan studied the black arts, Megan studied the white.

They would not cross paths again for forty years. Arthur, in triumph, had built the mighty walls of Camelot. The bitter, warped mind of Morgan had returned to him and conceived by her own half-brother a child. The child, called Mordred, manipulated and aided by his mother, would, in turn, return to Camelot intent upon its destruction. They would have succeeded, destroying mankind’s last best hope of escape from a dark age, had Megan Le Fey not returned from beyond the sea and joined her might with that of her brother Arthur to destroy the forces arrayed against Camelot.

In the years which followed, Arthur would lead the reunited Knights of the Round Table across much of the Known World. The world of today is one in which learned men have recaptured the ancient glories and the mystic arts have revealed to the common man the deeper mysteries of the world. Fey and man alike exist in mutual acknowledgment and brave new frontiers lying beyond the Mountains of the East, the Ocean of the West, and the Desert of the South lie yet to be explored.

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