Saturday, August 28, 2010

[Review] AA6 The Chasm of the Damned

The Chasm of the Damned

Author: James C. Boney
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: XRP6106
Retail Price: £7.00 or $12.00


An adventure for 4-6 characters of levels 6-10, the Chasm of the Damned consists of eight relatively short dungeons, each accessed from the titular location, some of which are interlinked. As with previous offerings in the series, the physical product has a glossy cover stock and is clearly printed on durable paper with black and white interior maps, but with a spine that appears to be susceptible to wear. The cover art is by Bradley McDevitt and appeals to the traditional aesthetic associated with the game, as well as being reflective of the subject matter. Both the front and back illustrations depict atmospheric scenes from the module that are easily recognisable. There are six interior pieces by John Bingham, including a particularly evocative depiction of a new monster that features in the adventure, and as with the cover illustrations almost all self evidently refer specifically to the content of the module. With regard to the writing, James Boney is typically economical and clear, rarely dwelling overlong on a description, and preferring to provide only enough to spur the imagination of the reader, which is of course in keeping with the methodology of traditional swords & sorcery adventure module design.

What has earned the chasm its ominous appellation is that it is a well known but randomly located plane shifting occurrence, appearing regularly every thirty-seven years for four and a half days. Rumours abound that great fortunes are hidden in the caverns it harbours, which is a natural draw for adventurers of all sorts, but commensurate dangers await and few are said to escape unscathed. The module presents two possible ways in which to get the player characters involved. In the primary scenario, it is common knowledge that the chasm is due to appear again and they are competing with several non-player character groups to locate and raid the caverns before the allotted time is up. As the alternative scenario, it is suggested that the player characters are employed by an enterprising cleric or magician who has determined the location the chasm will appear at in advance, and are engaged to prepare an expedition in secret. Of course, if they are incautious there is an ever increasing chance that a local guild of thieves or assassins will get wind of what they are up to and lay an ambush for the treasure laden party upon their return. A collection of rumours of varying degrees of veracity are provided for the party to glean about the chasm in advance.

There is a map of the chasm provided; it is about a mile in length and divided into three levels, each of which has access points to two or more of the eight dungeons. Several additional access points are provided in order to alert the game master to the possibility of expanding the chasm. The caverns entered from the first level are fairly straightforward, offering some relatively standard monster encounters, a few strange objects to interact with, the opportunity to rescue and recruit some non-player character associates, and the possibility of negotiating for a place to rest. From the second level, the caverns accessed are stranger and feature three new monster types denoted bogwings, madsome gargoyles, and faceless ones. One area is home to a powerful middle eastern inspired character known as the Gray Sultan, who has quite a lot of potential for a thoughtful game master. There are also some more familiar monsters that may be encountered or avoided as fortune dictates. Should the player characters reach the final level of the chasm, which is somewhat inaccessible, they will have the opportunity to explore the last set of caverns and uncover the mystery of the chasm, perhaps earning themselves a powerful enemy or patron in the process.

Technicalities and Errors

Besides the occasional editing error, such as "shortsword+1" (p. 6), and the somewhat vexing, but hardly unusual and in any case consistently applied, tendency to use compound words such as "chainmail" and "shortbow" there is little to complain about. The use of hyphens for minuses (e.g. p. 10) is worth commenting on, since a true minus does appear (p. 14) and I would like to see that practice extended to all instances. Oddities like "2-4 +2 turns" (p. 3) occasionally crop up, and mixed use of terms like "footman’s mace" (p. 6), "mace", and "war hammer" (p. 14) are maybe questionable in the context, since it seems inconsistent to specify the former, but not indicate whether a shield is intended to be small or large (p. 14). Hardly an issue for any game master more than passingly familiar with the system, but worth mentioning all the same if simply overlooked. The large efreeti bottle (p. 10) is also of interest, since it is not bolded, leaving the reader to wonder at its significance, but perhaps that is the intent. On the whole, the module is an improvement stylistically on its predecessors, suffering from fewer inconsistencies and hopefully future instalments will continue to ensure there are very few nits to pick.


Chasm of the Damned is a good example of James Boney’s work. It has a strong and innovative adventure hook, is engagingly written, and features plenty of interesting encounters. As with his previous modules, there is a tendency towards the eclectic, with a number of seemingly randomly selected monsters appearing as the result of what amount to traps, and no fear of including creatures capable of  draining life energy levels. The author shows excellent understanding of the system, and knows where to provide mechanisms for adjudicating otherwise undefined actions, as well as knowledge of how elements of the adventure are likely to interact with typical and experienced players. His modules feel like they are very much in the tradition of their predecessors without being simple retreads of the past, and have a definite identity of their own. That said, this adventure was less tightly themed than his previous two, and ran the risk of amounting to a number of dislocated set piece encounters. A more fully integrated theme and, as always, more content would have improved the whole, but it is nonetheless a very good module.


James said...

I think you hit the nail on the head, here. I like the module and love the concept, but the various encounter areas do feel disjointed.

jgbrowning said...

Thanks for the review, Matthew.

Unknown said...

Of course, to play devil's advocate, there is a potential strength in such disjointedness, in that any one of the caverns could be used individually elsewhere, but on the whole I would have preferred more cohesion for the purposes of running the module as a whole.

I have been meaning to write a review of this for months, along with another half a dozen Advanced Adventures. It is a great line, and deserves reviews, so I am glad to do it!