November 30, 2009

NaClaMoMo: The Hidden Shrine

One of my top three favorite modules of all time is undoubtedly The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan by Harold Johnson & Jeff R. Leason

It's one of the first, if not the first, tournament module ever published as such (although it's worth noting that many famous modules—among them The Tomb of Horrors—first saw life in convention tournaments).

Despite its age, the module somehow blends many diverse concepts into a united whole and it also eschews the wild unrealism of White Plume Mountain and The Ghost Tower of Inverness while still offering an intense array of unique challenges.


1. Theme

Theme rules here. The adventure takes place in a pyramid with a heavy Aztec/Mayan flavor. The encounter areas are very detailed, almost over-detailed, and all the treasures and most monsters are tailored to fit the setting. This leads to some unique critters, such as a mummy-centaur. The setting is utterly immersive.

I always loved settings that transport you—not always literally—to a new place. The PCs should never feel like they can simply lean out the cave door into the sunlight whenever they please, the way I see it. That's why I like the Tomb of Horrors ... once the PCs enter, they soon have the feeling that there's no turning back until the ultimate goal is reached. I love that. This module does you one better, if played one way (there are two, to be mentioned later) the PCs are forced to travel upward in their bid to escape the pyramid ruins before poison gas lays them low. Yes, it's a bit railroady, but the creativity employed in the encounters and the multiple paths to freedom give the ziggurat a surprisingly unconstrained feel.

2. Balance

Name has a great balance of traps, critters, and puzzles. My own creations are fairly puzzle-light, but when reading works like this I'm galvanized to enrich my own settings with more puzzles the players can solve. Here they are such a crucial part of this adventure that players failing to think on their feet might well kiss their PCs goodbye.

3. Background Detail

The author here has done his research, and it shows. This dungeon wasn't designed or written in a week or two, I'll wager. I reads like a labor or love (as the best adventures do).

4. Cool NPCs

The module provides three tourney-ready PCs that fit well with the overall theme. A pity there wasn't a few more!

5. Flexibility

The pyramid may be entered from the bottom—in the tournament-style start the PCs are running away from bounty hunters in the jungle and are dumped into the pyramid's basement by a cave-in—or it may be entered from the top down by more exploration-minded parties. Thus, some rooms are detailed to be run from varying directions. 

This author ploy succeeds in part, but IMHO the dungeon works much better if the PCs climb upwards because some traps and secret doors simply are oriented that way, and the pyramid encounters also seem to get more difficult as one ascends.

6. Cool Encounters

The encounters, as mentioned, are varied and all show creativity. There is a chamber where something with molten feet has leapt about and melted huge, clawed footprints into the floor. But where is the creature? Another area requires the characters to traverse a pit via jungle-gym style bars while killer plants hurl thorns at them. Yet another area forces inquisitive PCs into a game of pelota (in this case, a sort of Mayan soccer) where they must knock an dangerous animated ball into a goal or risk setting off a deadly trap. 

Let's see. A room that fills with sand—check. A room decorated with magical mirrors—check. Huge mill stones tumbling Indiana Jones-style down stairways—check. Creepy undead and entombed vampires—check. There's even a distinct nod to Metamorphosis Alpha in one room. This one has it all.


1. Age

The module shows its age in some respects. I spent much of my flight to the last Gen Con reading this module in the hopes of running it for the Goodman Games crew (alas, this didn't come to pass) and I was struck by the huge blocks of detail-heavy text the DM must wade through at times. A DM grabbing this off the shelf isn't going to run it well on the fly. Indeed, any DM thinking about running this should set aside a decent chunk of time to read it properly and understand all the encounters and puzzles. That said, I think the DM will find the investment well spend indeed.

I highly recommend this module. It may not be classic as far as having orcs and the like, but it more than makes up for that by pushing its chosen setting to the limits.

November 19, 2009

NaClaMoMo: My Take on the Village of Hommlet

Ah, The Village of Hommlet! What better module to consider for NaClaMomo?

This module ranks in my Top Ten Classic Modules of All Time—full list to come in a latter post! I can't resist making a few comments about it.

This adventure was a masterpiece of old-school design. It's open-ended, with no overt hooks at all. The PCs are presumably at the village simply because evil once lurked hereabouts and they want to make a name for themselves. Aside from reports of bandits running the roads (don't they always?) there's little to go on, yet the ruined moathouse, a former bastion of evil, begs to be explored by the brave and perhaps foolhardy.

The module shows its age in some ways. Every NPC is written to have treasure in case the PCs decide to slaughter them. It's possible for several nights of combat-free play in the village and then WHAM, the PCs can find themselves in a meat grinder of a situation and die. Yet despite this, it's surprisingly easy to run and can be successfully used by new or newish DMs. 

I ran the module a few years ago (not for the first time) and the players had a great time. They cut rather quickly to the chase, not seeing the need to interview every wainwright and fletcher, but the detailed locations and small mysteries stood the test of time.


1. The village is brimming with interesting personalities and NPCs just waiting for DM expansion. Moreover, there are plots aplenty here and villains abound. Some NPCs have the potential to be long-time allies or enemies.

2. The village has great "home base" potential and the PCs could realistically return to the village between adventures elsewhere. It's also located in a fairly civilized but interesting area of Greyhawk.

3. The infamous moathouse works well. It has atmosphere, a cool map, and it has a great mix of critters without feeling overcrowded. (In realistic terms, it is overcrowded, but it's easy to look past that simply because the dungeon has a great flow to it.) And Lareth the Beautiful is a splendid bad guy (his moniker alone is classic).

Also worth noting is the awesome illustration by David Trampier of the moathouse (see below), which corresponds to the map exactly. I love that drawing.


1. It's Deadly! I don't know if this is exactly a con, for me it's almost a bonus. Not because I enjoy killing off characters—indeed, I've been accused of being a "DM softie" no doubt—but at first level it's good for the players to get a subtle (or not so subtle) reminder just how inexperienced and, well, mortal their characters are. This has been lost in the era of 3.5/4e/"look at all my powers Ma!" and it's a shame.

The moathouse has a few real uber-baddies, which include two—count 'em—patches of strategically placed green slime, a killer crayfish (a very cool addition), and some heavy-duty humanoids. Lareth, the final bad guy, has an armor class of –1; that means first-level characters including fighters need a 20 to hit him! (It's mixed odds the PCs will even have magic weapons when they met him.) There's also a place where the characters can simply get lost in a warren of ghoul tunnels—presumably until they starve—if they take a few wrong turns on the map! Woe to the player that lets the giant rats lull them into a false sense of comfort!

2. As Mike mentions in his post about the adventure, the delayed release of the Temple of Elemental Evil left the poor DM hanging for years. One wonders just how many DMs created their own Temple, based on the name and few other details, simply because their players wanted to head there next.

3. The treasure is lop-sided. The villagers have almost nothing, the average treasure is often a number of coppers in a iron kettle buried beneath a dung heap. Yet the moathouse, as Mike also mentions, has a great deal of loot. (Where are the bandits getting all this anyway if most of the locals are so poor? Local merchant trains? Extra from the Temple?) Be prepared to cut the end-treasure in half if you want to maintain game balance.

4. A few things don't make complete sense. How did the moathouse start crawling with evil again under the collective noses of Rufus and Bernie, and the other agents of good within Hommlet? To be fair, the good NPCs are hobbled or kept otherwise busy so the PCs can be the stars, which is how it should be, but still...

If you're looking to start an old-school campaign and remember the true spirit of AD&D as it was first envisioned, break out your venerable hardcovers and give this oldy-but-goody a try. You won't be disappointed.

November 18, 2009

A Cthulhu Chat

I got a chance recently to do a podcast with Mark Kinney of All Games Considered about Madness in London Town and gaming in general. Mark struck me as a great fellow and the interview was a pleasure to do. Afterward, of course, I couldn't help but think about why I didn't mention this or that, but I think I at least conveyed some sense of the process behind our adventure playtesting and such. Moreover, I'm humbled to be interviewed, period. I've interviewed a number of music artists in the course of my radio work, but it's weird to be on the other side of the fence, so to speak.

The interview got my brain in Lovecraft mode once again, and I immediately pulled a story collection or two off the shelf and began reading. I haven't explored many of the non-Lovecraft Mythos stories, so that's where I'm focusing now. Specifically, I want to read Ramsey Campbell's Cold Print (about which I've heard good things) and some of the early Lovecraft-inspired Bloch and Howard work. 

A link to the interview can be found here. You might also wish to listen to my Goodman Games comrades Mike Ferguson and Ken Hart in the interview before mine chatting about their experience producing the upcoming Shadows of Leningrad (they certainly sound more lucid in their interview than I did in mine)—the link to their interview is here.

Thanks for listening!

November 06, 2009

This Year's Halloween Selection

This was a busy Halloween, as the 31st marked the first birthday of my son Kai (how fast that went!), but I managed to squeeze in my annual Horrorthon. Ken Hart of Goodman games fame and my old friend James were on hand as I pulled out my box of horror DVDs and warmed up the DVR.

This year's selection:

The "Living Doll" episode of the Twilight Zone

"My name is Talky Tina..." I've always found dolls creepy as all get-out, and this episode was no exception, especially the chilling finish. Telly Savalas, sans lollipop, plays a great heel in Eric Strater, yet you almost feel sorry for the guy by the end, trapped as he is between a marriage on the edge of collapse and a sinister doll. June Foray provided the voice for Tina. I think the earliest occurrence of the dreaded doll-on-the-stairs trick I can recall was in an old Ray Bradbury story—I can't remember the name but it was during that period in the late 1940s when Bradbury wrote some fiendish stories about killer babies and such.

I recall many, many years ago crawling into the cubbyhole on the upper floor of my parents' home looking for something. It was our version of an attic. It was dark, dusty, and cramped. I was flat out on my stomach, pulling myself forward and ever-deeper with my hands in quest of that elusive item. I came across one of my sister's dolls, a heavy model with metal eyelids that opened and closed. Unbeknownst to me, the doll was made to work with a magnetic "wand"—if you waved the wand the metal eyelids flapped open, and if you touched the wand to the doll's chest the doll's arms would close and "hug" you. 

As I neared the doll I stumbled across the wand and, not knowing what it was but curious, palmed it. Moments later I came face-to-face with the doll in the narrow cubby and as I tried to push it out of the way, my hand (still clutching the wand) touched its chest... The doll's eyes popped open and its arms closed around my hand in a tight embrace. To say I popped out of that cubby like a cork from a champagne bottle is about right. Only later did I figure out what had happened. Brrr.

The Simpsons TreeHouse of Horror III (which, by no coincidence, in part mocks the TZ episode above)

A great counterpoint to the evening's other chills!

"Eater" episode of Fear Itself

This episode concerned a policewoman who is part of a skeleton crew in a dingy precinct watching over a cannibalistic serial killer they are holding overnight. The environment was suitably frightening, but the episode quickly devolved into pretty standard fare. The stupid behavior of the protagonist didn't do much to generate sympathy.


As killer alligator movies go, this wasn't horrendous, but the character development was sorely lacking. Why should I care about these people again? Because two of them flirted a bit? That said, the alligator effects were pretty good! I also thought the scenic shots of Australia—clearly taken on location—were fabulous and added greatly to the feeling of puny humans in the great wilderness.

"New Year's Day" episode of Fear Itself

This was a rather tame version of the standard speed zombie / rage zombie theme wherein a woman awakens after a long New Years party to a very changed country. I liked the way the flashbacks revealed glimpses of the evening before and the ending helped save the episode for me. At the heart of this was a really good idea.

Many thanks to my fellow film watchers for an enjoyable evening. Here's to next year!

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