|Cover art, I like this party |
the majesty of "The Rock" s lacking
Firmly entrenched in the mid 80’s, and TSR’s trends towards higher fantasy adventures with clearly delineated good and evil, Journey to the Rock is still an exception after the unsettling (and often unnecessary) railroading of B5-B7 that seems to mark the beginning of a move away from sandbox play. Written by Michael Malone in 1985 doesn’t have the popularity or notoriety of much of the B series, I’m not really sure why this is, as there is much to use in Journey to the Rock, perhaps it came out at a time when D&D was trending away from the sort of vanilla world exploration fantasy that it represents towards the epic scripted adventures of Dragonlance, perhaps B8’s solid structure is lost underneath a coat of dullness that still makes it a bit of a slog to read. B8 doesn’t just return to the more open world popular in the early B series, it returns to the practice of giving tidbits of GMing advice, which is welcome. There’s advice on character death that focuses on wandering adventurers rather than henchmen as replacements. It’s an interesting choice when compared to the advice in B2, and which I read as a move in mid-80’s D&D towards a party of individual heroes vs. party as a band of desperate treasure hunters or wandering pack of mercenaries. The rather decent pre-generated characters show this as well, with typical fantasy backstories and quite good statistics, but without being overly long and complex. None of this is bad or especially good, just noteworthy as a signpost of the direction D&D was taking in the mid 80’s. Another example of the mid 80’s railroad/heroic adventure thinking in Journey to the Rock is the inclusion of optional encounters that are to be avoided if they might destroy the party. It’s a shame as the vast majority of these individual encounters are quite good, and beyond time pressure or avoiding hammering a wounded and foolish party of adventurers there’s no reason to avoid them.
B8 is supposedly novel because it is primarily a wilderness adventure, but this is only partially true. B8 is an adventure that occurs in the wilderness, but it provides three ‘paths’ to the target location rather than a hex crawl to explore, though one could easily explore the empty hexes (squares actually) striking out across the map. There are simple, and seemingly solid wilderness travel and encounter rules, and some nice concepts embodied in the day and night encounter lists. The encounters themselves have tiny bits of character to them that go a long way to making them feel naturalistic (Forest ogre wears deer skull helmet, goblins send out raiding parties if the party kills their hunters) and while this isn’t much it’s better than a lot of modules - B series or contemporary. One issue is that the map represents maybe three days of travel at the rates provided (which seem high), making this a rather short wilderness adventure, though the density of the path’s inhabitants may slow a party down. Another positive and noteworthy element of Journey to the Rock is that many of the monsters are unique, and many are not outright hostile. This is a huge departure from B7, B6 or B5 where good and evil are drawn sharply and creatures are either friendly or instantly aggressive.
The dullness of Journey to the Rock begins with the plot, despite containing some classic swords and sorcery elements such as the ancient city phased out of time and seeking to return. What’s surprising here is that the core ideas are fun, but they are presented in a blunt, rules heavy manner, and worse the interesting bits aren’t expanded upon while the minutia is. The party is accosted by a merchant in the wilds who wants to offer one of them a job from a local wizard and noble. The party travels to a manor where they are given a job to trek to a distant glowing massif and recover an ancient amulet to allow the wizard to bring his lost city back to the world. This is presented as an absolute good, which is a bit strange, and the hook itself is “go get the wizard something for money” is so trite and miserable. Weirdly the module writer thinks this hook deserves several pages to set up. After accepting the quest the adventurers wander off into the wilderness, presumably along one of the three trails on the map they receive. The North trail goes through some mountains and the abandoned ruins of the phased city. The Western trail wanders through forest and the Southern barrens or a desert. All three paths lead to an interesting set encounter and a puzzle involving the nature of the rock itself.