Thursday, April 17, 2014

B8 - Journey to the Rock - Review



Initial thoughts

Cover art - Party is nice in a mid 80's way
The Rock lasts magesty
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.

How I’d run Journey

First, one needs to dispense with this idea of “Optional Encounters” that pace the adventure so that the party need not be in real danger until something climactic occurs.  The encounters in B8 almost all offer a non-combat solution, admittedly sometimes this involves paying a toll, but what’s the point of the adventure – to beat up random gangs of creatures in the woods or to journey to some weird rock.  Part of the fun of running a table top game, especially D&D is resource management and trying to solve puzzles, including the social puzzle of avoiding a combat encounter, without losing resources like HP and henchmen. 

Second, the hook needs to be reworked.  I’d simply add a creepy ancient manor in the forest inhabited by the scions of the vanished city.  The manor is crumbling amongst the encroaching forest giants, something akin to an Angkor Wat and formerly the summer home of one of the vanished city’s leading families.  No ancient wizard, just a pack of decrepit inbred country squires that talk endlessly about a lost treasure and the return of their ancient glory.  They have maps and a willingness to pay for ‘trinkets’ from the shrine of their ancient homeland, the Rock.  They will show the party a vault seemingly filled with ancient treasures (mostly it’s junk, but there must be at least 5-10K in stuff in there – as this is really the only treasure the party gets in the adventure) and promise to pay for anything the party can recover from the Rock.  The odd octogenarians know they can return their city with certain items, and in the past have sent younger sons (there are none now) and adventurers to the Rock, but none have returned with the right item, an ancient statute of the city’s goddess.  It’s here that things get interesting though, the city isn’t good or evil exactly, but it was definitely an aggressive power in service of a goddess that demands conquest and blood.  The old family doesn’t know this, they just have ½ remembered tales from generations ago.  Send the party looking for cash and reward their success with money and a major campaign development.  The reward needs to be bigger than the 500GP in the module, something like 1,000GP per party member at least, given the lack of treasure on the journey itself. I also would need to redraw this player map into something less dull,and perhaps it would be best if the map was of the city before it vanished.  Transforming the existing ruins of "Tuma" into a ruined suburb of the vanished capital.

Look a map - a boring boring map
The travel paths only need minor changes, a few clues about the ancient city, especially it’s dangerous nature, on the random encounter table and a filing off of the mid-80’s D&D tropes.  Most of the monsters are unique enough, such as the toll taking tribes of chameleon men and rock men.  It might be worthwhile making these groups somehow part of the city mystery – either refugees from the city or maybe peoples formerly enslaved by it. The Rock-men could be easily replaced with a legion of undead warriors loyal to the lost city and still following their border patrol duties.  That the ancients used a necromantic army might give the party pause.   Otherwise the encounters really just need to have their strangeness emphasized, rather than deemphasized, especially as the party gets closer to “The Rock”.  Time warp effects, ghostly visions of the ancient past would be good additions along with the timeworn relics of the ancient city, such as stone fences and farmhouses being swallowed by the forest.  I would also replace many of the humanoid enemies with humans, the ogre robbers need not be ogres, a band of brawny 4th level fighters would work just as well, and I find the use of monstrous enemies at every turn encourages a game where players attack everything they can.  While I am also opposed to moral consequences, that there are random jerks robbing travelers in the woods usually enrages the players enough to not become random jerks who rob travelers.

The only encounter that needs reworking, well removal, is the ship of tinker gnomes.  I know that gnomes as cute bearded engineering wizards is a popular cliché in games, beloved by many.  I find gnomes irksome in the extreme, and when they jaunt about using steam-punk technology it’s worse.  Now the gnome landship encounter has no purpose other than to be whimsical and adorable, acting as a seed for future techno-gnome based adventures.  Dispense with it, make the ‘Southern Route’ a barren desert of glass and poisons from the sorcerous destruction of the lost city, or a now dry bay complete with ancient magical shipwrecks and salt pillars. I want my players to sense that they were heading towards something bigger then themselves and potentially very important/unpredictable.
The weakest part of Journey to the Rock, is actually The Rock itself.  A random hag that sits around protecting it, cause she’s evil, is actually a decent encounter mechanically.  Cosmetically I much prefer this to be something else, maybe an angel sort of spirit.  It can do the same transformation and such from a damsel in distress, but rather an angry old lady, a big horror made of light and beauty might convince the party that the city was banished by some forces beyond their control. Heck maybe not even from a damsel in distress, rather some sort of stern, vaguely ethereal paladin type of an unknown god who speaks sadly about the guardians of the rock and asks the party leave  or face the guardians (a pack of glowing animated weapons), before turning into a light winged engine of destruction.   The illusory attacks and other elements of the Crone of Chaos encounter are fine, quite nice for a set encounter, but it’s a bit predictable that the chained up princess is going to turn evil at the first chance, and the guardian of the rock should be something more telling about the nature of the city the party seeks to free and its ancient enemies.

The entrance to The Rock, and the magic sword (which should be something more interesting than “+2 sword) are even interesting enough in an illusory wall and sword engraved with hint way, but the interior of the Rock itself is pretty lame.  I actually like the ancient king statues that attack with their different descriptions and crowns that can be knocked off to defeat them.  Still the rock itself is just a giant room, and seems almost like the module writer ran out of energy to continue the module.
The Rock deserves a bit more, perhaps it’s the ancient city’s holy site, and the rock is honey combed with shrines and such, likely filled with undead or more angelic guardian types.  This might make the ending of the adventure a bit more lucrative and not a letdown after the wilderness travel. It’s hard to make the journey to a really empty place seem especially interesting.  The party should be also have walk back to the manor with their prizes, perhaps encountering the world changing from their actions

Conclusion

Journey to the Rock has all the makings of a fine adventure, but it just feels flat, and dull and devoid of fun.  It lacks factions or really a compelling purpose and its individual encounters don’t tie together well, even if they are better than most in the B series. 

To fix it, the empty vessel of a module doesn’t just need to be filled with setting; it needs to have some interesting hook or rationale implicit in the area explored.  The rock should dominate the land and a sense of progress is needed rather than a string of events and movement along a map.  It can be done, but I think it’d be a lot harder to fix then other modules I’ve reviewed, which is perverse considering it’s a better module in many ways. 

It's also worth considering how Journey to the Rock approaches wilderness adventure, I'm not sure I like it as much as the open exploration of a hex crawl, but it seems functional enough for the limited nature of the wilderness.  Perhaps rather then encounters along specific roads, a GMs map of regional encounter (i.e. Chameleon men in this larger area) might be a quick fix - though hardly necessary.

B8 might make an introductory adventure if one wants a campaign about the return of an ancient empire and the party responsible for the apocalyptic war that follows, but as it is there’s very little pay off for this huge fantastical change in the game world.  Likewise the Rock itself is really an afterthought, it might be good to put a smaller module or fragment of one at the end – at least an honest 10 – 20 room lair.  Otherwise Journey to the Rock will earn its middling reputation by being solidly written and designed, but without any purpose or pay off.

3 comments:

  1. I had never heard of this module, but that isn't surprising, I guess, as I've played very few of them. Nice write-up, as always.

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    1. I was shocked when I discovered that there were 12 B series modules. Only 3 or 4 were known to me perviously, what's intrresting is how they span the life of TSR. Might be intetesting comparing B1 to B12 as to what kind of game the authors think is being played.

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    2. Seems like you're just the man to do that analysis.

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