Thursday, March 24, 2011

[Review] AA7 The Sarcophagus Legion


The Sarcophagus Legion

Author: Andrew Hind
Contents: 16 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 13 pages of adventure, 1 page of OSRIC advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6107
Retail Price: £7.00 or $12.00

Overview

An adventure for 4-6 characters of levels 2-4, the Sarcophagus Legion presents a desert wilderness area and two dungeons, each consisting of one level. The physical product has a glossy cover stock and durable internal pages; the text has been clearly rendered, as have the black and white interior maps. Happily, the spine seems to be showing more resistance to wear than the last two in this series. The cover illustrations by Bradley K. McDevitt depict encounters in the module and appeal to traditional sensibilities, though the back image is perhaps the more compelling of the two. Of the three interior pieces by John Bingham, the title page image is particularly good. In addition to being evocative of the substance and theme of the module, it is a stylistically strong example of his work. The writing is for the most part energetic and clear, but does sometimes become cumbersome and over descriptive in places. An informed reader might suspect that the module was written in the style of a Dungeon Crawl Classic and then later converted over as a prospective Advanced Adventure, the read aloud text being integrated into the area descriptions, and a repeat error in the monster entries appears to confirm that as a likelihood.

The basic scenario is relatively straightforward; the sultan of a small desert kingdom seeks to engage the services of the adventurers to retrieve his fifth wife, Syriana, from a band of dervishes, who have taken her captive after ambushing her caravan. However, unbeknownst to the party and only lately revealed to the sultan, this unfortunate woman has been determined to be the reincarnation of a long dead queen, whose blood can be used to ritualistically animate the dead. In particular, she can potentially be used to bring into undying service a legion of mummies reputed to lie dormant beneath an abandoned temple deep in the desert. This is a setup with great potential, and reminiscent of a good number of Doctor Who episodes, but it is unfortunately largely squandered. Instead of becoming embroiled in the political intrigue and power struggle between the sultan and the dervishes for control of the ruined temple and the means to awaken the undead legion beneath, the adventurers are sidetracked to a former derro stronghold where Syriana has ended up; after rescuing her they are unavoidably betrayed and captured by servants of the sultan, then expected to escape so that they can rescue her again from the temple.

Whilst both dungeons are reasonably interesting and playable individually, they read as though they were designed independently and then stitched together into a heavy handed narrative. At first blush the wilderness map seems to promise open ended exploration, but the reality is much more linear, a string of encounters leading to a final showdown in the temple, the sacrifice essentially delayed until the adventurers show up. Hind, as always, provides numerous memorable encounters with innovative denizens, which offsets to some degree the larger design shortcomings. The clockwork spider and Laukshar the Leaking, a diseased ghoul priest, are particularly interesting examples of twists on conventional monsters, but there are also thematic magical items to be had and deadly locations to avoid, such as the "Pit of Fangs". Good use is made of task resolution mechanisms, rather than simple reliance on linear attribute checks, such as bend bars/lift gates to escape magical attacks and opportunities to forestall saving throws. Even experienced players should find an entertaining surprise or two in this module, and intelligent play will usually be rewarded, allowing the party to avoid expending resources unnecessarily. 

Technicalities and Errors

Occasional textual errors, such as "desrt" (p. 2), are almost unavoidable, but still worth noting. The stylistic and notational inconsistencies are somewhat irritating; for instance, the forms "1-6", "2-12", "1-6+1", "1d6", and "d6" are all in evidence, and whilst such lack of standardisation might be thought endearing by some, it is seems doubtful that it was really intended. On the other hand, the notation for less than a full hit dice is consistent in that it is presented as a hit point range, even if fractional notation is arguably more aesthetically pleasing. However, the most significant technical fault of this module is that the movement rates for all of the monsters and non-player characters are the D20 values, up to and including the new monsters in the appendices. Consequently, skeletons and dervishes have a move of 30’ instead of 120’, and that can only be confusing for a game master who does not realise what has probably happened. Errors of this sort must be caught in editing, especially if a module shows signs of being originally written with a different system in mind. It is particularly unfortunate because the statistic strings are otherwise very consistent, the product of some considerable care.

Conclusion

Conceptually, the Sarcophagus Legion has a lot to offer, the sultan is well characterised and the political situation provides plenty of opportunity for adventure. Moreover, its individual elements are good examples of Andrew Hind’s imaginative approach to swords & sorcery adventure, but as a whole it falls somewhat short of being an ideal module. Perhaps its worst design transgression is the pause between dungeons that requires the player characters to surrender or die, presuming the former. The lack of wandering monsters in the dungeons and relatively linear structure of the maps (though this is less of an issue with the mines than the temple) are also issues. With enough time and will, any experienced game master could get a lot out of what is provided, but as it stands the Sarcophagus Legion is in need of redesign and further development to meet the full potential of the ideas it contains. That is not to say that the module is a failure, indeed it is not a bad marriage of traditional game rules and modern adventure design sensibilities. Nonetheless, that is not really what has come to be expected of the Advanced Adventures series, but it is still to be hoped that Hind continues to bring his creative talent to future modules of improved design.

2 comments:

Steve Viggiano said...

Well-written review. I agree that the premise is pure gold, but the Derro stronghold is incongruous with the rest of the story. Perhaps the PCs could sneak into the dervish camp to rescue Princess Syriana instead of having to go to Black Plume. That was my original plan to modify the adventure, but I ran out of time, so I'm running it as written.

If you're looking for a setting in which to place this adventure, try TSR's GAZ 2 - The Emirates of Ylaruam. Just change a few names, and the Emirate of Nithia works perfectly.

At the risk of making a shameless plug for my own game, you can find an example of this adventure in play at my play-by-post campaign over at the Goblinoid Games forums.

www.goblinoidgames.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=36

I look forward to reading more of Andrew Hind's modules.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Welcome, Steve!

Thanks for the kind words. I am glad that you agree with me as to the incongruity of the former Derro stronghold (incidentally, I had not made the Black Plume to White Plume connection until your comment). I think that some sort of raid on a bandit camp or stronghold would definitely have been preferable.

Good suggestion as to a setting supplement, might be worth adapting for my Greyhawk campaign. The Golden Auroch, AA4 Prison of Meneptah, and AA9 Pyramid of Imhotep might also be useful.

Scalydemon pointed out your game when I posted this review to Dragonsfoot, so I had a bit of a poke around then. Looks active and fun!