Monday, November 19, 2012

ASE II Review

ASE LEVEL III - this is not a small dungeon
So, Patrick Wetmore over at Henchmanabuse has release the second session of ASE. I've thoroughly read a pre-publication copy as I made some of the art for the adventure, and this review is based on that.  This is not a critical review, it really isn't, not only was I tangentially involved in the second book, but it's the project that got me back into gaming and has inspired at least 1/2 of the content on this blog.

That said, I can say the following about ASE II without losing any claim to objectivity.  It's good just like ASE I which it is a faithful companion volume to.  Now, ASE II is basically just dungeon levels - though there's a few additional classes, which are fun: Moktar (I've tested the Moktar - a Barbarian analogue that works well enough), Insect Man (an anti-undead killing machine - a paladin of sorts?), Scientist (a magic user type with fixed powers, a sorcerer?), and Robot (most like a monk - looks great to play).  There are also a few tables that give a feel for Denethix, but really the book is about the dungeon and assumes that most of the time the party will be skulking through its strange halls.

Strange Halls indeed  - two big mega-dungeon levels full - stuffed full of amusingly deadly stuff and taking a party up to level 4 or 5.  The over-world recedes in this book, perhaps due to the overwhelming demand for more dungeon from ASE fans.

Notable, and consistent with why I feel ASE is a high quality product, these levels both make sense in a Gygaxian naturalism way, and also manage to contain the bizarre, deadly and absolutely fascinating traps/puzzles that ASE should be known for.  The entire third level has a large puzzle, there are numerous strange objects to toy with, and every trap or trick is both fairly novel and at the same time extremely well designed.

Mostly though I will say that ASE II, once you strip away the murderous troglodyte clown men, their circus of evil, the necromantic midgets, the cursed cheeseburgers and the well dressed wight lord - has what a megadungeon should.  The skeleton of the place is sound.  There are reasonable and functional factions, an interplay between level, puzzles, varied environments, novel treasures, novel traps, novel monsters, a slowly revealed mysterious history and time pressures that push exploration.  It's dangerous but not boringly lethal, and deaths won't often seem arbitrary (Wait you decided to mess with the electrical jar and its metal frame?).

Another example of excellent dungeon design is the way ASE II handles dungeon timing.  The Subsurface Environment broadcasts its existence to the world when its gates are first open with klaxons and search lights.  Given this introduction, its obvious that other forces will enter the dungeon seeking wealth besides the players.  ASE II takes this into account very explicitly, providing several NPC parties (humorous and sensible for the world) and notes on how to run them/their motivations.  In addition to the danger of rival parties (some suspicious but neutral and others sinister and cruel) there is the danger of "wizards" (megalomaniacs wielding fragments of super science) who have been attracted to the dungeon in search of power.  At the beginning of each level ASE II proposes likely changes (the reaction of the local military, the transformation of the nearest sleepy village into a boom town) that make sense and give hints about the lower levels.  These changes and NPC plunderers all provide the GM ways to push the party into exploration - a problem with megadungeons, as players are surprisingly risk adverse (especially in deadly games) and will loiter around the entrance stealing the copper pieces for a surprisingly long time.

ASE II feels sufficiently harder than ASE I - mostly because the enemies are more intelligent and dynamic,capable of reacting to PC intrusion in an organized way.  The various factions also manage to be unique and have different strengths and weaknesses - as well as having a distinct feel.  Even the troglodytes in thier fungus spire manage to feel novel, despite being a standard D&D monster.

As a practical matter the writing is clear, effective and simple, the layout not especially unique, but useful and familiar.  The art is similar to what's on this blog, with some better pieces by other artists.  That is to say, its of a style that apes the amateur art of early D&D products.   There are a great many idea within though, wonderful ideas - and this is what ASE II really provides, a new and unique way of re-contextualizing the dungeon crawl.

Anyway go buy it if you want a gonzo (though deadly serious for play purposes and not overpowered) mega-dungeon, or simply to see how a dungeon should be written. Here at Lulu.

As an aside - I played in a playtest of Zak Smith's new Alice book (a terror raid on the Red King's castle) which was a lot of fun - I used the PC posted yesterday, described aptly by the party's Elf as a "Sadistic Pinocchio".  Said Elf was the only fatality and we didn't get far into the castle, but it was a lot of fun, and has all the promise of Mr. Smith's earlier work, though a bit more dark whimsical because of the fairy tale aspects. A project worth watching to be sure.


  1. Replies
    1. Pat's maps are pretty great and the scale daunting. He's got maps up as an extra pdf on henchmanabuse now if you're wanting more.