Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Grimmsgate Supplemental Review
This review of Grimmsgate supplements Bryce Lynch's detailed review of the module, as well as Matt Finch's response to that review (Matt is author of Grimmsgate). In particular, this review focuses on some playability/usability details Bryce didn't mention (overlooked?), and focuses in on Grimmsgate's suitability as an introductory module in the rough style of something like B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, which Matt said was the design model for Grimmsgate. But first…
Grimmsgate is a good module — a very solid B grade. Not Matt Finch's best (that bar is really high), but good nonetheless. It has a number of Finch-y qualities — odd situations and objects for players to engage with besides just the strategies & tactics of combat avoidance and treasure seeking. There are a lot of recent modules that I simply wouldn't bother running, but I would run Grimmsgate.
However, as an introductory module for players new to roleplaying (or Swords & Wizardry), its grade is lower — probably a C. It has a number of issues that mar its suitability as an introductory module, and some general fit & finish issues that hamper its overall usability. If somebody asked for a recommendation on a good S&W intro module, I would point them elsewhere.
The Village of Grimmsgate
The village itself seems lacking, or underdeveloped as a springboard for adventure. It's fine as a home base; the module tells you what you can buy, how much you'll pay for lodging, and what NPC help might be available. But it's missing built-in adventuring possibilities / temptations.
It's almost unfair to compare Grimmsgate to B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, but since Matt mentioned it as the model, I'll compare it anyway. In B2, the Keep itself is a potential adventure site; there are agents of evil within the Keep, there is literally a secret door leading to another adventure site below the Keep (though I can't find the reference in B2 for that at the moment — I apologize if I'm misremembering), and there are other, more selfish reasons for covertly exploring the Keep: Plenty of loot! ("Did the guard say a jewel merchant lives here!?")
By contrast, although the village of Grimmsgate is initially described in a way that makes it seem like it could be a potential adventure site (its a defensible location with guards that don't seem to initially trust you), the module doesn't build off those features. All the occupants are essentially friendly/allies, there isn't much reason for snooping around, and hell, the module doesn't say how many guards occupy the gatehouse. In hindsight, given that the town is relatively defensible, it might have been interesting for the module to include some built-in way of triggering a raid against the town. (e.g., an bit of loot that the monsters come looking for if/when the PCs bring it back to town.) At least that way the defensible location could be more interesting despite the friendly occupants.
Oddly, there's an inconsistent presentation of stats for the townsfolk. Some of the non-classed townsfolk are given stats, but others aren't. Especially strange is that the guard (who levels his crossbow at the party as they approach the village) is not given stats! This is nothing that would disrupt the flow for a GM of some experience, but it might be troublesome for a new GM, or one who's new to old-school games. More on that later...
Some of the wilderness areas seem kind of "phoned-in." The ogre/ford has a reasonable amount of usable design meat, but the dragon and the bandits have much less. As an introductory module, I'd expect some kind of rumor or hook that helps neophyte players understand that plundering a dragon's lair can be very lucrative (and very dangerous too). The bandits lack guidelines on purpose and tactics. Bandits have it tough in a world with magic-users; unlike the ogre description (for whom there is guidance on how he likes to tilt the odds in his favor, yet still remain somewhat ogreishly stupid), the bandit section offers no impartial guidance on how they might cannily threaten the party.
Holistically, the wilderness areas are too detached from one-another, as well as from the village and the main dungeon. The dragon, the bandits, the hill of statues — you'd never have an inkling that those things would be around, and be worth investigating. You can't see any of them from the village, and there are no rumors or clues that point toward investigating in those areas. The wilderness needs more trails, a wandering monster chart, additional relevant rumors, or similar. (By contrast, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands includes explicit rumors about two of the main wilderness areas, with enough of a pointer so that an interested party could easily head the right direction to find them.)
Oddly, the early Referee Notes (page 4) contain an allusion to a wilderness wandering monster chart, but no such chart exists.
The Elder Temple (the main dungeon)
This section of the module is pretty good, and the most typically Finch-y. The orbs, the spirit, the repeated visions (with a distinct wandering monster trade-off, as you try to experience more visions), and the different decorations & carvings all give the players interesting stuff to think about, while the odd monsters look pretty tough and could easily cause a number of hasty retreats by the party (a good thing!), and force the players to think both strategically and tactically.
My only peeves about this section have to do with content errors and production glitches that detract from its suitability as an introductory module…
Issues as an Introductory Module
Where Did They Come From? Neither the "Start" text nor the wilderness map makes it clear which way the party is expected to have traveled from. Worse, the only path shown on the village map potentially implies that the party came from the east, but that would lead to a temporal oddity relative to the ogre at the ford along the only road to the east, which the party hasn't encountered yet. There is a rumor implying that the characters didn't come from the ford, but nothing stated explicitly that I could find on a re-skim. This jarring/confusing situation could have been easily avoided. (By contrast, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands does explain where the party is expected to have come from, on page 12 of that module.)
Secret Doors: The secret door workings should have been described, with a brief explanation of how each "door" opens and what the triggering mechanism is. The traps in this section, by contrast, are fully described; what if the traps just said, "the sarcophagus is trapped (1d6 damage)?" That wouldn't be acceptable, so I'm not sure why it's acceptable for secret door designers to just put an "S" symbol on a map wall and call it a day. The S&W rulebook is pretty explicit about the fact that secret door workings ought to be given design consideration; the rulebook says that a successful secret door roll doesn't necessarily reveal how to open such a door. Also, there are two rooms (areas 8 and 10) where the module doesn't explain whether the occupants of the rooms know about the adjacent secret doors; for an introductory module, I'd expect some guidance on that point.
Hard to Map: For a group of beginners interested in trying out old school mapping, the dungeon map is really hard to logistically contend with, both for the DM to describe and the players to interpret. Odd angles, non-standard widths, and a lack of alignment to the grid all make verbal descriptions tricky, which could be a big road block to some groups. There's a reason why B2 The Keep on the Borderlands keeps most areas aligned to the grid.
Inconsistent Presentation of Introductory Info: There's advice for new GMs, but it's scattered around and presented several different ways, and this inconsistency doesn't serve to keep things organized or easily findable. One example is the description for area T-20, where it reminds a new GM too late (!) that he should have already presented some information to the players before they entered the area; the relevant info should have been a separate keyed area on the map, outside area T-20. I'd also expect some mention of monster reactions (initial attitude toward PCs) somewhere in the module, given that reactions are hand-waved in the S&W rulebook. I think the expectation is that they are all aggressive, but it's hard to be sure.
Content Mistakes: There are a handful of these, and these kind of glitches never serve to make a good impression on a new group/GM. The dungeon wandering monster info talks about a "special" entry that purportedly relates to each different section of the dungeon, but there's no "special" actually on the chart, nor is there any mention of it in each section of the dungeon. There a mention of a door in area 23 that isn't on the map. There's a flooded room (area 15) that probably shouldn't be flooded, because it has an obvious drainage path down the adjacent stairs. There's a missing slope connecting the highest part of the dungeon with a lower section, between area 14 and the nexus of areas 40 and 41.
Inconvenient Layout Glitches: There are a number of problems, most of them minor, but one stands out as legitimately troublesome during play. The dragon area description in the wilderness looks all nicely ended on page 8. So when you run the module, you could easily forget to look three pages away for the paragraph that talks about the dragon's treasure. There are a couple other similar, though more minor layout offenses, including a table and a new monster description that each breaks across pages, and orphaned portions of room descriptions that could have been avoided by commissioning art *after* doing the layout. It's hard to say exactly how bad these last few glitches are because I haven't seen the physical printed version yet; having to flip back-and-forth to deal with the table (from area T-13) would get old pretty quickly.
Overall Grimmsgate is good, but it feels like it was missing a proper/firm producer's hand. The Frog God Games guys needed the guts to push it back to Matt for another revision. They needed to shepherd the layout and illustration a little bit better, to avoid the jarring/inconvenient page breaks. It needed more polish to really be an "A grade" module.