Friday, May 15, 2015

REVIEW - Bonespur Glacier and Tomb of Bashyr


Looks Pretty Slick for a Charity Product
Erik Jensen is one of the first GM’s who I played with online and I have always enjoyed his games, set in Wampus Country, a tall tale version of the frontier, but only vaguely American.  He’s a great GM, who runs a very free form game, short on maps or metrics but long on NPCs and unique situations.  I don’t know Jason Paul McCartan except as a G+ poster and the author of the OSR today blog - a well designed blog aggregator and curation site.  Still, I was excited to see that the pair of them had produced a “double feature” set of adventure locals and were offering them as pay what you want on RPGnow with the proceeds going to charity (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital).

Bonespur Glacier & The Tomb of Bashyr

The product is a 23 page PDF but at least 5 or six pages are filled with art, content pages, an ad for a talented mapper and the OGL.  Nothing wrong here – the product is a fine example of independent game publishing and the art and layout is very professional and decently done, if often in the somewhat forgettable way of post 2000 WOTC product. The two maps are also rather exceptional, being the work of Monkeyblood Design (Glynn Seal) who is one of my favorite mappers working today.


FIRST ADVENTURE – BONESPUR GLACIER – ERIK JENSEN

A site based adventure built around a glacial upthrust that resembles a bloody chunk of bone.  A small town of neutral polar bear men live in its shadow, ready to be a sort of anthropomorphic bearbarian rest stop, and within the glacier there are perils. Some of these perils are typical of tundra and glacier adventures – snow worms, crystal oozes, and a talkative crystal dragon.  Others are not, such as a band of bandits/cultists led by a fairy-tale style ‘fox-woman’ and a sad ghostly princess.  The adventure seems to be written for a low level party, but provides a good variety of challenge, including some very dangerous foes that are clearly not meant to be survived if fought at 1st level(like the Crystal Dragon).

Bonespure Glacier was clearly written with Wampus County in mind, firearms are eluded to for example, but with a light touch that allows the adventure to be run in a less early 19th century way and more as traditional high fantasy.

The adventure consists of several cave entrances and areas.  A couple of mostly empty caves used by the Polarbear men for ritual, with attached to a maze of caves that is home to the bandit cult, a pair of caves high on the glacier leading to a dragon lair and a small set of hidden caves that hold the a vengeful ghost of an exiled princess and her wight bodyguards.  This last set of encounters provides the most dangerous clear foes for the party, a group of wights and a 10HD ghost, but it is written as more of a set of traps and puzzles (the ghost is mischievous and will torment before unleashing its full powers, and it cannot leave the room).
THE GOOD

A nice random encounter table with very short descriptions that include a variety of monsters (varied in strength and outlook) as well as a few specimens of peaceful local wildlife opens the adventure.  It’s good to see this sort of random encounter table, and the inclusion of a harmless snow-shoe hare adds far more than one would think.  Colorful, but harmless encounters are a great way to add life and variety to a game.

The treatment of humanoids (the polar bear men, the brigands) and their dwarven ice pirate enemies (who are only hinted at here) as NPCs rather than simply factions of monsters, they have some minimal personality and goals follows from the same spirit as the random encounter table.  It’s simple notes like the ways (tale-telling, lynx hunting and wrestling) that the bear men will allow the party to become friendly with their tribe that provide sufficient, but not excessive detail and make the encounters more interesting by offering many potential solutions or interactions.

Though small, the map of Bonespur Glacier is good, with four distinct areas and several entrances whioch provides some looping and doesn’t feel linear or forced.  Within the glacier the descriptions are good and detailed enough without being overlong.  The encounters seem reasonable – though the ghost area is a bit of a deathtrap, and make sense in the context of the location. That they are of varied danger and strength is a positive, as the party should flee from some (the ghost), negotiate with others (the dragon) and fight or negotiate with others (the bandits). Treasure, though not entirely without hoards of coins, is also well described and sensibly placed – however the value of a few potential treasure items (the fine rug that forms the cover of a pit trap in the ghost’s chambers for example) is omitted, but that’s easy to remedy.
THE BAD
There’s a sort of lack of cohesion in Bonespur Glacier, and it feels like a sort of grab bag of icy tundra tropes at times.  I could do without the dragon for example, but this is a fairly minor complaint, born more out of my own game playing prejudices rather than an actual failing - I wish Erik had given the Glacier more of a Wampus County feel instead of an easily removed gloss that reveals standard D&D high fantasy.  The site may be too small for the number of small adventures presented as well, adding to this feeling, but I see that more as an artifact of being excellent for online play (online game sessions tend to be shorter and more episodic than in person play) and the glacier could provide for 3-4 sessions (6-12 hours) of play fairly easily, and ultimately it gives other intriguing hints about the icy wastes around it (those dwarven ice pirates on their skate ships principally). 

The lack of random encounter tables within the glacier (though the areas are small and distinct so this may not be much of a problem), as well as a lack of rumor tables are also a failed opportunity, especially the second.  Why befriend the bear village if they can’t provide any scouting information about the adventure site they live in the shadow of and worship within.  Rumor tables also provide a nice opportunity to flesh out villages and their cultures.  The bears have an excellent, organic feeling and interesting culture (a pastiche of various Neolithic tribal practices – but nicely strung together) and some more of it could come out with a good rumor table. 
Some of the encounters and factions feel rushed, the bandits mostly lack any personality, and a couple of more lieutenants (or at least some evocative names) would easily remedy this.  Likewise the dragon has a rather pitiful treasure hoard, though what it contains is somewhat interesting (only clear gems please!) and I personally love in depth dragon hoards. 
OVERALL

I enjoyed reading Bonespur Glacier, it has a great deal of character packed into it and provides the unfortunately novel experience of aiming for a kind of light hearted play without the trappings of brutality, gruesomeness and grim cruelty that are common in a lot of OSR products (I am somewhat guilty of this at times).  There aren’t any really evil evils in Bonespur Glacier, baddies and beasts, but no one that the party will feel they must eliminate (even the ghost), which could lead to a more exploration, roleplaying and caper style of game.  A fun read and worth introducing as a love level adventuring hub for a vanilla fantasy game set somewhere icy.

SECOND ADVENTURE – TOMB OF BASHYR– JASON PAUL McCARTAN

A tomb romp, another tomb filled with puzzling traps designed to murder the invader.  It’s not really a tomb though, but some sort of testing ground that leads to a deeper level of an unknown dungeon, without any indication of why someone would go through such an effort.  This whole adventure is solidly a homage or remake to TSR era ‘known world’ funhouse dungeon design and I found myself having to fight against my prejudices against this sort of thing in order to treat it fairly. I don’t know if I succeeded.
THE GOOD
Though it contains utterly forgettable or ‘classic’ monsters, they are well described in simple but effective ways – for example the patterns on the giant centipede shells, or the goblin’s collection of bone weapons. Likewise the room descriptions contain nice touches such as the single mouse cleaning its fur in the second room, and this sort of evocative detail provides empty spaces a bit more life, pulling players into visualizing the space rather than simply seeing it as a square on a map.
There are nice puzzles in Tomb of Bashyr, riddles, illusory walls, statue traps and poison traps.  All of these feel like puzzles to work out, and that’s a fine thing.  The puzzles may be scattered without any sense in an artificial dungeon, but they are fun and sometimes novel.  I do worry that some of the puzzles are overly complex, and fairly reliant on clues that could easily be missed.  In my own GMing experience complex traps with convoluted puzzle solutions rarely work for long, and without serious incentive to overcome them players will often give up and wander off to another location.

THE BAD
The first thing I noticed about this adventure is that the map is linear, a nearly straight path from the entrance to the burial chamber with only a few tiny offshoots.  This is hard a danger in tomb adventures as they lead themselves to this sort of architecture, but when designing any dungeon system it’s worth thinking about map flow, and I don’t see that in the Tomb of Bashyr, though there has been an attempt to create a loop, and really given the map size this may be unfair.  The map itself is very pretty though.

This sense of standard map design is exacerbated but an utterly standard adventure, and worse one that doesn’t feel like it has any place or meaning within any game world.  Perhaps there’s a timidity to blame, an unwillingness to move from the standard D&D setting material, because I don’t think it’s the author’s lack of imagination or visual sense (there’s some nice descriptive flourishes and the traps are good), it is a problem though.  Why is there a storage room full of crates in a tomb for example?  Why do some areas contain dwarven inscriptions?  Where is the treasure in this dungeon?  Yes the few pieces of loot described are decent enough (if standard coinage and adventuring gear), but there is nothing to encourage a party to continue investigating this trapped dungeon, not even promises of great wealth at the end.

Why is it always goblins?  Really I mean it. TSR products from the 80’s used humanoids a lot as stand-ins for evil men as it made killing the nuisance monsters a conflict between good and evil rather than murder (even justified murder) and helped protect against allegations that D&D was a terrible bad way to have fun.  Authors of 3rd party, small press adventures don’t need to follow this artifact of the Satanic Panic and really the excess of disposable humanoids has become an irksome cliché.  Put some NPCs in places where one might place orcs and goblins – army deserters, tribal hunters, or outcast lepers, because it makes players think about who they should fight, when they should talk and what kind of people their characters are. 

OVERALL
The “tomb” is a series of traps, and thus suitable for any low level party (once they have decent spells, it becomes trivial), and while there’s little sense of why or what the tomb is baked into it, I am the first to praise a good trap or puzzle as one of the most eminently useful elements of other’s dungeon design.  Tomb of Bashyr, despite being largely forgettable and unconvincing as a either unique or evocative space has some good traps in it, and is worth a perusal for this alone.  I will never run this adventure, it’s both too skeletal (not a pun) and too thoughtlessly standard high fantasy for my taste, but I will steal at least one of these traps in the next month or so, which makes it better than a lot of adventure locales.
In Conclusion
This is the sort of product that I’d like to see more of.  As I mentioned in the last review I posted, independently produced, free or pay what you want RPG products are to me the heart of the hobby, it’s feeling of community, mutual support and openness.  While I may be critical of some such products, even Tomb of Bashyr above (or more specifically a far worse product like my own free dungeon locales) is laudable because it is the work of a hobbyist expressing their enjoyment at playing the game and sharing their ideas and imagination with the community at large without asking for anything back except maybe a high five and that others return the favor and share their creations.  The criticism I offer above is meant in the spirit of helping writers and dungeon designers improve their work, and I really hope that this kind of critique doesn’t come off as shallow or mean – it’s not meant to.  The hobby needs precisely more products like Bonespur Glacier and Tomb of Bashyr, both because of the high quality of the production (equal to many ‘publishers’) and because they are the earnest goodwill expressions of creativity offered up to the public out of a sense of creativity and an enjoyment of a tiny hobby.  Each expresses a certain style of play, and having more options to pick and chose from helps everyone who is player a tabletop game decide what style of play they want, what unique aspects they can to add and what has been done before.

3 comments:

  1. Gus,

    Thanks for the candid review. While I can’t speak with much authority regarding Bonespur Glacier, I can speak about the overall publication and The Tomb of Bashyr, as I’m the publisher of the product and the person who wrote that particular adventure. And I think that you’ve made some criticisms that I feel I have to address. I have to post this as multiple comments.

    What is very important to stress here, and which you didn’t mention but is included in the Introduction of the charity module, is that these two adventures were the winning adventures in a competition run by Christopher Mennell and each entry was to consists of “10 to 20 room descriptions that evoke the feeling of a 1st edition dungeon crawl. The specifics are entirely up to you, and may include whatever traps, monsters, treasures, etc. you feel necessary...just be sure to keep your submission OGL friendly! Your submission should be a complete dungeon (no back story or anything; just the dungeon rooms, please), or it could be the start of a larger dungeon (even a megadungeon).”

    Alas, the original publishing endeavor by Christopher ran into problems and then Jez Gordon took lead on the project, coming up with the initial layout. After some time, Jez was unable to continue on the project, so I picked it up and rebuilt it using Jez’s original internal layout for the publication as a template and further enhancing it. This was all done to make sure that the project was completed and the obligations and expectations set up regarding the adventures and the competition were met. This isn’t and should not be looked at in the same light as an original and unique publication that’s trying to do groundbreaking stuff or trying to cast its own shadow. It’s the publishing of two dungeons that were competition entries with all proceeds from the sales of the double feature module going to a charity who was chosen by everyone involved (who all gave up their free time and energy and skills to be part of this).

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  2. [cont]

    You say that Tomb of Bashyr is a “tomb romp, another tomb filled with puzzling traps designed to murder the invader. It’s not really a tomb though, but some sort of testing ground that leads to a deeper level of an unknown dungeon, without any indication of why someone would go through such an effort”. As you can see from the competition restrictions above, there was no backstory allowed. There is a great deal of backstory to the Tomb, and this is just the first level of it. More on that in a bit.

    You also say that the “…whole adventure is solidly a homage or remake to TSR era ‘known world’ funhouse dungeon design”. Yes. Absolutely. Because it’s meant to evoke that First Edition feel. This also explains why there are classic monsters involved in this low-level adventure, such as goblins. It’s got nothing to do with being an artifact of the Satanic Panic, but all part of the homage. Once again, this was an adventure written for a competition, and not written to be something groundbreaking or going beyond the bounds of the constraints set up for it by the competition and my vision for meeting the competition’s requirements.

    This dungeon is all about monsters and traps because it’s following the dungeon design paradigm as detailed in the original DMG. Monsters were also generated according to the Dungeon Random Monster Level Determination Matrix on page 174 of the DMG and tables I, II, and III on pages 175-178. All part of the homage that you hinted at, and you can’t get much more of a “first edition feel” than actually using the tables in First Edition AD&D to actually generate the adventure content. It should be noted that there are further levels that will be published for the “complete” Tomb that actually have additional factions and a lot more content along the lines that you feel is missing, but that’s beyond the scope of the original adventure entry.

    Regarding the puzzles, everything needed to pass through the entire dungeon is there for players to discover or work out, or come up with creative solutions to get by. I’ve ran this module multiple times online as well as offline and there are always creative ways for people to get through it. Most who play old school games or follow old school dungeoneering principles manage to find and work out most of the puzzles or traps and get through mostly unscathed.

    Which leads to the dungeon design itself. Yes, it’s linear, because it’s designed to channel those people who will raid the tomb through the traps - this is part of Bashyr’s design. It is indeed a meat grinder, but it’s a meat grinder with a logical set-up (according to the original creator Bashyr) that is designed to help safeguard his phat loot on one of the lower levels (not included). It’s meant to draw them to rooms that look like they may be the actual tomb, but aren’t. Lots of false starts, but enough to throw off those who aren’t likely to continue persevering and who are going to cut their losses and run. This dungeon level is really the entrance to the actual real tomb more than anything else. Many of the clues in it are also reminders to Bashyr in case he forgot how to get through an area.

    Another thing that I should disclose is that I wrote The Tomb of Bashyr and generated the original map in Illustrator for it at the same time in a single 10 hour writing session on the LAST day of the competition (which is when I found out about it) getting it submitted just before the deadline. I consider the final dungeon quite an accomplishment that does what it set out to do, which was to pay homage to the adventures of yesteryear while still being extensible for others to use and develop further.

    POD versions of the module are going to be available soon (I’m receiving proofs now) and if there is success with this product in raising good funds for charity then there are plans to continue developing more of these charity products, which will not be under the same constraints as the original two adventures in this module were, and therefore can stretch their wings with regards to content.

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    Replies
    1. Badger,
      Thanks for the notes on the project's source, I do understand the history of the modules - both Spur and Tomb. I would point out two things that I reference in my review.

      1) The genesis of the project is interesting, but to my mind doesn't detract from the validity of the criticisms of the product. I do mean it when I say it's not a bad product, and the charity aspect of it is wonderful. Yet neither of these adventures in perfect - I don't suppose to know what would be a perfect adventure - but I have subjected them to the level of rigor I apply to reviewing.

      2) These were both written for the same contest, they are both winners of that contest. The first has more individuality, and evocative setting. The second has better traps - really there aren't any physical puzzles in Spur. They are very different adventures.

      As I mention frequently, I am no fan of vanilla fantasy and following the Gygaxin maxims within the DMG, yet I understand this is how some people play. Games that are recreations of early play styles are fine, but I don't enjoy them very much (at least without a re-skinning) and I think the contemporary disagreements with this aspect of OSR play are well documented. There can and have been plenty of improvements in adventure design since 1982 that can fit even in a homage to 1e adventure.

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