Tuesday, March 4, 2014

B6 - The Veiled Society - Review


B6 cover Art
Written by Dave Cook in 1984, The Veiled Society (B-6) is a departure from the previous B series of modules in that it’s not a dungeon crawl or exotic sandbox, or even a mundane sandbox like Keep on the Borderlands. The Veiled Society is an urban adventure with intrigue and warring families in a sparsely described town, which appears to have used modular 3D paper buildings as its main gimmick. The paper building gimmick is unfortunate as it appears to have eaten up space that could have been used to make this module interesting or evocative.

Yes, veiled society takes things in a different direction, but it does so artlessly, without soul and with the railroading tools found in the worst kind of TSR modules. From small indignities such as the automatic pickpocketing of money to remind the characters they are in a big city, to forced alignment based action and a predetermined path of encounters to set up the adventure, Veiled Society is a brute of a module that does not hold up well after 30 years. There is almost nothing to recommend this adventure except nostalgia.

When I reviewed B4 – Lost City and was surprised by its lack of content I felt that at least their was an inclusive spirit there asking the GM to run with the module’s themes, but sadly Veiled Society doesn’t even have a sense of playfulness to it. It’s mercilessly dull. It has a decent map or two, and a few encounters that are fun enough, but that’s not enough to really want to reformat this module into something worthwhile. Still, I promised myself I wouldn’t be endlessly negative in these reviews, and I’d say what I would do to fix these old modules rather then lambast them without mercy, but Veiled society makes it hard…

The module begins with the player arriving in the city of Specularium, described as dirty (though remarkably well protected and garrisoned by an upstanding sort of Duke), and “like the medieval cities of Germany and Italy.” Within the dull confines of Specularium there’s a power struggle between rich and powerful families – and the module wants the GM to learn about it through little novelistic vignettes. This is the first thing that must change. I refuse to read story tidbits about fantasy Venice unless they are at least as well written as Scott Lynch’s "Lies of Locke Lamora" (which isn’t asking that much really), but even if I could get through these wastes of space in an already lean and depleted module, the actors and factions here are dull and dead: the Radu are evilish import export tycoons, the Torenescu guilders with connections to the nobility and the Vorloi friends with the army and duke who want to be left alone. I want to leave them all alone, and can’t really tell them apart or give an iota of a damn about their schemes and plots (which is too bad because some of the plots have the barest potential).

In my effort at module triage, Specularium is now renamed “The Green City” – A lush paradise magically warded from the diseases, parasites and beasts of the purple jungle at its back by perfumed miasmas that waft blue through its streets every evening from the “Duke’s Park”. The limits of the miasma define The Green City’s footprint, and it’s presence marks the city’s culture. The Green city’s streets are indeed narrow and crooked because of these limitations, as to live beyond the miasma’s touch is to invite a linger death twisted in soaked sheets and disfigured by rupturing buboes. The wealthy live down by the sea, where the blue mist’s health giving effects linger the longest, while the poor have been forced to the outskirts and hills of “The New City” There is no Duke, though there was one once, perhaps the sorcerer who is responsible for the fog, and the Duke’s Guard, led by the Azure Hierophant, is a skeleton force starved of resources by the city’s merchant syndics. There’s little need in the Green City for Soldiers as the jungle prevents land invasion, and the Duke’s Fortress mounts monstrous engines of arcane destruction. There is a navy, but it’s a hybrid force, mostly privateers and armed merchantmen, owed by the syndics. The Syndic families (Named after colors of animals or something – because fake fantasy names are obnoxious) compete, scheme, and even encourage, the crews of their ships to riot sometimes, but in general it’s a complacent town where food comes from the enormous fishing fleet, industrial materials are imported and wealth is pulled from the strange jungle in the form of gems, spices, drugs and exotic animals. There’s no great plot about to plunge some good Duke’s land into turmoil – only semi-ritualized shenanigans and schemes that the ignorant foreign party finds themselves neck deep in, without any idea of the rules and norms.

Much better factions...
With a weird enough land, I hope the dull events of the Veiled society can be enlivened. Yes, a confrontation at a festival could be interesting, if the festival isn’t just some dull bit of quasi medieval ribaldry, punctuated by a yelling match between dull people. Make these NPCs interesting, make the festival bizarre ... the entire town in diaphanous blue robes and on stilts, at the “Mist Festival” gliding up to strangers and screaming in their faces while pretending to be mist demon (oh yeah I’m adding mist spirits, because a magical mist needs them). The conflict between factions should be weird to, a ritual fight with stone knives break up atop the PC’s wagons and by disrupting it they’re now part of the rivalry – something like that. As it is Veiled Society is too skeletal and boring, relying on railroad encounters to get the party acquainted with the factions. My party would want to know about folks in colorful costumes battling with padded spears atop various feather floats for the amusement of ‘kings’ who are throwing cheap jewels and gold pieces at them for their support. They might not pick a side based on anything more then who’s closest, but they’ll join in the ruckus without having to have threatening dudes bother them later. The same interest won't be found for a masked gang of toughs who threaten them outside a bar.

See that’s the technical problem here. Veiled Society has such a boring setting that it relies on automatic encounters to push the adventure along at a fast pace because random encounters won’t work with a city as boring and hazily realized as Specularium. Urban life is about having too much choice, and too much stimulus - urban adventure games should reflect that. A good city supplement (I’m thinking of Vornheim here – but I think Judge’s Guild did some stuff way back when that’d also work) will provide the cues and some tricks to randomly generate interesting content and fill out a skeletal city. Veiled Society doesn’t because it is lazy, tiny and wants to run a specific adventure, not describe a fantasy city.

In the module as written, after being introduced to the factions, the party gets to have a few mini adventures, including a little jaunt through tunnels that lead to a murder scene. The party is pushed to solve the murder and then there’s a riot. While the adventure makes these events a sequential story of the evil family/veiled society becoming more aggressive in its plotting this is unnecessary. These can be random events/encounters and provide clues about who’s up to what in town. The party will develop antipathy, or figure out who’s arm to twist for protection/hush money if they are interested in urban adventure.  If the player don't want intrigue, it’s off into the jungle (at least the way I'd run it), and nothing lost, because the Green City will still be a snakepit when they get back, and it’s their home base for digging gold masks from the jungles.

The little undercity dungeon presents one of the better ideas in Veiled Society. The bad family is digging secret tunnels, or maybe everyone is. This makes more sense in the Green City, with its space issues, opportunities for smuggling, sea caves and even jungle denizens tunneling about, but it's at least mildly interesting. There don’t need to be hobgoblins though (and there are), they should be replaced with burly faction toughs bossing about the emaciated miners. The underground dungeon is itself fairly well designed, a long narrow map that is fun for its size and has some neat tricks. Less well designed are the riot and murder mystery that follow. While mysteries rarely work in games where the party has access to detect lie, speak with dead and commune, I guess a 1st level adventure might call for the Encyclopedia Brown level of detection Veiled Society includes.

The Riot is also a good idea, marred by dullness.  The riot thankfully doesn’t assume the party will act in a specific way, and includes some plausible encounters, though it tries to stack the deck against a group that wants to help the rioters (which is fair enough I guess). Yet, Veiled Society's writers ignore the truth that many parties would simply use the riot as cover to loot rather than lead the riot or run to apprehend the orator that started it and the actual mechanics of the thing are a vague mess. A riot in the much more colorful Green City could be interesting, especially with either a feeble Azure Guard Showing up and watching (until night time when they might call on those mist demons…), while faction aligned privateer crews melee and attack the looting poverty stricken commoners, each crew trying to claim the honor of putting down the riot.

Veiled Society’s riot leads inexplicably to a pair of proposals to either escort or assassinate a rich member of one of the factions, but this also leads nowhere. The ambush and chase here has a couple of good ideas, but tries to pit party members against each other (with sputtering advice not to let this become a player v. player combat). In keeping with my own thoughts on running games, and urban adventures and involving faction conflict, this won't do. The factions aren’t dumb, they realize that adventurers tend to stick together and while they may try to use the party, they will avoid making its members fight amongst themselves, unless really desperate, because the loyalty of wandering murderhobos to a cause is not strong. There is a legion of beggars involved in this section, but other than the skeleton of a running fight amongst twisted streets I wouldn’t keep anything else here.

These various introductory encounters are supposed to get the party involved, and angry at the Veiled Society to the point where they try to solve the earlier murder. The problem is that these various little events, while interesting enough alone, provide little in the way of clues about the factions and are mostly just additional excuses to have some combat during the party’s ‘investigation’ of a murder that I doubt most parties would bother investigating. Yes, the authorities may suspect the party, but they will allow lie detecting Clerics to prove the party’s innocence. I would much rather use this as a set up for something that annoys the players and makes them want to solve the crime – confiscations of wealth based on “¼ guilt” or a humiliating trial by ordeal. There is nothing to encourage players to investigate except vague promises of employment and feeling bad that some nice lady was murdered. This might work, players are fickle, but it seems more likely to leave a GM scrambling to fill out a city and its factions without actually having any direction as to goals, backgrounds, locations of interest or city encounters.

At some point due to railroad fiat, player annoyance and/or the party having figured out the murder, the Veiled Society springs an incompetent ambush and a chase ensues even if the party works for the Society. The chase leads to a dull little dungeon that’s the secret society headquarters.  It should only take a few moments and cribbing the descriptions from the Lankhamar thieves guild or Dr. No to cobble up a good secret society hidden sanctum, yet B6 fails miserably.

The veiled society has a mildly interesting trap plant, pretty good idea for a jungle city, but totally inexplicable in a DungAges town of pseudo-Teutons. Beyond that, the secret lair is 4 other rooms including a little rally hall and a cell with a gratuitous good guy in it in case the party hasn’t figured out who the baddies are. This is simply dead dull. Ambush and chase are fine perhaps, especially if one assumes that faction conflict in the setting is highly ritualized, but I think one needs a base for each faction that evokes something, and with only two pages devoted to it the module could easily do that. The secret base needs to be interesting as well, not a dank room with some fires and twenty robed fellows. Give me monumental statuary, a feast hall with trophies, a wall of ancestral skulls, a drug den – something besides a room with twenty robed thugs in it. It’s not that the veiled society isn’t dangerous, but they lack even the slightest bit of mystique. I won't even bother with the sparse and boring treasure, or the lack of any sort of ending events that might wrap up the module.

B6 - City of Dull Gimmicks
B6-The Veiled Society is next to worthless because, in order to run this adventure decently, one needs to write an entirely new adventure.  Personally I’d need to design an entire city, think up factions with clues/characteristic leading to them and either buy another adventure sourcebook or write a mess of random tables to make for vibrant city encounters. There are a few fun things to take away, and it’s worth noting that at least Veiled Society tried to do something novel (city, faction conflict and mystery) when it was published, but today there’s nothing in Veiled Society that hasn’t been done better. Even in its day, I wonder how good B6 was. By any metric, Veiled Society is a short, sloppy adventure with only about 15 pages of content, much of it bloated with vignettes and boxed text, yet without a memorable bit of treasure or description. The building cutouts might have been amusing, but they appear to have gutted the adventure to the point where it doesn’t contain a single random encounter table and no description of the city’s more interesting locales. Given the amount of content this adventure needs to be interesting, perhaps cardboard buildings to run a series of tactical chase combats is all that B6 could offer in its available space, but that's profoundly disappointing.

2 comments:

  1. Still can't believe you didn't like The Lost City. ;)

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    1. I didn't hate lost city, it just felt rushed and shot through with the problems of the earliest adventures (exceedingly random monster and item placement). In a sense this is what B2 avoids - by mostly having a vaguely naturalistic placement of creatures and items. B3 has this disease really badly, and Search for the Unknown tries this to be naturalistic to an extent with a very limited palette of monsters, but since it is almost totally random to why they creatures are where they are. B4, like B6 is a product of its time - B4 could be fixed easily, B6 can't. Also B4 has a DIY message for introductory GMs that is positive while B6 teaches lessons in railroading (A static world uninfluenced by player actions) and forcing players to conform to story expectations.

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