Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Mystery RPG Box of Mystery: Round 4

The fourth round of the Mystery RPG Box of Mystery contains

  • Wild Dragon Den, an adventure for D&D
  • Denizens of Earthdawn Part One, a sourcebook for Earthdawn
  • Ravenloft II: the House on Gryphon Hill (module I10, for AD&D)
Still a little heavy on the D&D stuff, but that's no mind.

Wild Dragon Den is the first adventure from the same boxed set that Wyrmhaven came from, built for four 1st-to-3rd level adventurers.  The format is simple to the point of being trite: a wealthy patron seeks adventurers to exterminate the lair of a black dragon and her lizardmen henchlings (is henchling a word?)  Like Wyrmhaven, the PC's are equipped by the patron with flashlights, healing potions, and equipment designed to neuter the main villain, namely the aforementioned black dragon.  In this case the equipment is several potions for curing poison, and two shields who remove most, but not all, of the damage from the dragon's acid breath.
I actually like Wild Dragon Den better than Wyrmhaven for the location, a limestone cavern whose walls and ceiling can be knocked down by enough damage.  There are flooded rooms and mudpits and lots of little touches that given the place more character than a simple stone complex.  Nonetheless, the adventure is pretty colorless and indistinct from every other generic monster lair out there.

If Wild Dragon Den lacked color, Denizens of Earthdawn Part One is overdone with it.  This sourcebook for Earthdawn (aka FASA's fantasy RPG and in many ways the prototype for D&D Fourth Edition even before Third Edition came out) features an encyclopedic background for Elves, Humans, T'skrang (the lizardmen PC race), and Wildlings (the pixies).  You get history, religion, arts, architecture, philosophy, etc. for the various races.  At the end are some additional disciplines (classes) and talents (skills) for the game, the only real "crunch" in a book composed mostly of "fluff."  Earthdawn is very world-specific as an RPG, and this book is even more world-specific, so its value lies either in fleshing out the game designer's vision of their world, or pinching cultures for your own campaign.  But there is so much and it gets into so much minutiae (the etiquette of T'skrangs' tails, for example) that you really, really have to like Earthdawn to get into this book.

Once again I seem to be getting into sequels before the first installments, since Ravenloft II: the House on Gryphon Hill is theoretically a sequel to the breakthrough module Ravenloft. Except it isn't.  As James over at Grognardia caught, Tracy and Laura Hickman are listed as authors on the cover but the inside shows them as only providing the story outline.  Moreover the central NPC of Ravenloft, the vampire Strahd, has been bolted onto an entirely different plot, with the module's authors suggesting that either the plot featuring Strahd of Ravenloft or Strahd of Ravenloft II is a dream the PC's are having.  In Ravenloft III, Strahd is shot by another NPC only to appear in the shower at the end of the adventure.
Anyways, the module isn't really an adventure per se, it's a story, with the PC's playing only a facilitating role. The PC's stumble across a community being besieged by your typical undead-related underlings.  The town's primary inhabitants are the local nobleman, his lovely daughter, and her fiance', a charming and fair alchemist.  The alchemist is the Dr. Jekyll to Strahd, who serves as the Hyde in this completely hackneyed plot.  The PC's basically wander about the town fighting minions until the DM nudges them forcibly to get one of the NPC's to a local mesmerist, where they finally get the clues to the true identity of Strahd (he isn't necessarily his good counterpart), his goals (also flexible), and the location of a few crucial pieces of machinery to a device that can stop him (the locations of which are also up for grabs).  This mirrors the plot device of the gypsy in the first Ravenloft mystery, where there's some "random" elements to the plot.  What isn't random though is that all of these things move the story to its climax, the showdown between the Alchemist and the Vampire, while the PC's are relegated to mere witnesses.  The use of Strahd by TSR in this story is pure exploitation, and the story tries to capture much of the gimmickry of the first module but lacks anything of redeeming value.  I'm not sure, but I think this module didn't even make it into the "canon" of the Ravenloft backstory when it became a whole campaign universe, not just a single module.

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