Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Mystery RPG Box of Mystery: Round 5

The fifth round of books from the Mystery RPG Box of Mystery is:

  • Queen of the Demonweb Pits, Module Q1 (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons)
  • Signs and Portents: Babylon 5 Roleplaying Game and Fact Book (Mongoose Publishing)
  • Missions (Shadowrun, FASA)
All right, now we're talking.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits was the final episode is series of modules running though the "Against the Giants" (G1-3) and "Drow" (D1-3) modules.  The PC's have made their way through some standard monster lairs, an underground wilderness, a mega-dungeon/lair, and finally an entire city-nation of evil elves.  Where to go from there?  Apparently even Gary Gygax didn't know, so he gave the job to in-house artist David Sutherland, who had some ideas about an extra-planar realm that would serve as the home of the drow goddess Lolth, Queen of Spiders.  Q1 is probably best known for the map of the Demonweb, an elaborate maze involving some non-Euclidean geometry.  In addition to various rooms on the web (oddly not a reference to the internet) that feature some very un-demonic monsters like werewolves, the module also features several pocket dimensions, each only taking up a page or two of text.  The final encounter is fairly notorious, because Lolth's home is a giant mechanical spider, which people tend to love or hate depending on how "pure fantasy" their taste in D&D is.
The module, for all its iconic history, is a mixed bag of shells.  It was hard for Gygax himself to come up with a way to create a climax after Vault of the Drow.  Sutherland broke ground in creating an extra-planar adventure, but this is definitely one that could be retread into something else.

I'll admit up front that I have watched all of one episode of Babylon 5.  Its heyday was during a time when I was in graduate school and having my first child and the last thing I wanted to try to shoehorn in was another serial television series, especially one that seemed to me to be "Star Trek for people who didn't want to be another Trekkie like everyone else."  I'm not being insulting, I just know a lot of people who were passionate about the show and resented the hell out of anyone comparing it unfavorably to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Anyways, this is licensed RPG for the series, done by Mongoose Publishing.  For some odd reason, they decided to go with an OGL product, even stating on the back cover that you needed a copy of the D&D Player's Guide.  My question is, why?  You could cobble together a workable skill-based system without shackling yourselves to the D&D formula.  They even implement a different ruleset for hitting people not based on armor, but use the obvious "armor removes points of damage, not make you hard to hit" that would be essential for any game involving firearms, much less a sci-fi one.  But for those who are a fan of the series, there's lot of information about the series setting, the races, psychic powers, et al.  There's rules for surviving (or not) in the vacuum of space, starship combat, and all the other things you'd need for a sci-fi RPG.
What I found most interesting, especially as an outsider to the series, was how weak the characters from the series are made.  The highest level character shown is only fifth level.  I thought to myself, in D&D under fifth level is all kobolds and copper pieces, and these guys were the main characters in a TV series?  Maybe it does deserve a look.

Finally, Missions is a sourcebook for Shadowrun, Second Edition.  For those who don't know, Shadowrun was and is a pastiche of traditional fantasy elements in a Cyberpunk setting (William Gibson said that they had spliced his literary DNA with an elf).   Specifically Missions provides scenarios for the Shadowrun Companion.  The Companion was an attempt to take Shadowrun into some alternative campaigns, such as having the PC's not be corporate spies/thieves/terrorists but instead personae like Lone Star operatives.  Missions provides four scenarios, each for a different kind of campaign.  The scenarios are laid out in what could best be described as a flowchart format (there actually are flowcharts in the book) in which the PC's start out at Encounter A, then can go to B or C, then maybe back to the one they didn't go to first (so PC's that went to C could then go to B), then finally end up at the closing scene D.  How they handled the previous encounters affects how the closing scene goes down.  It is all laid out pretty clearly and cleanly in a way that would probably appall some GM's who prefer things to be a bit looser, but be appealing to people who don't want to put a lot of prep time into a gaming session.
Since the scenarios are all genre-specific, there's not a sense that you could use all four in a single campaign, but could either use the missions as one-shot diversions from a typical campaign or use them to kick off a longer-running alternative campaign.  Shadowrun is a a tough genre to port stuff into other campaigns, although you could just scrub out the magic in some of the scenarios and run them as straight cyberpunk stories without a lot of effort.

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