doc_and_leski_congo

The Congo River snakes through jungle, then savannah, then into the mountains where Dr. Livingstone was found

Talysman has lately been writing brief summaries of some of the existing hexcrawl generation systems. He won’t be reviewing the Source of the Nile system, so I’m here to grab that baton…

The Source of the Nile hex generation system

The SotN rule book actually contains two hex gen systems. They are virtually the same except one is card-based and the other chart-based. For the solo campaign I conducted a couple years ago, I used the cards because they provide a little more detail and seemed faster. In a nutshell, the system involves drawing a series of cards (or rolling on several tables) to determine the hex details…

2 of the 108 cards used to generate the map of Africa

2 of the 108 cards used to generate the map of Africa

Draw a card to determine if the new hex will be a continuation of neighboring terrain or not.  See on the cards where it says “Terrain” followed by two numbers?  Basically, if either of those two neighboring hexes are already generated, this new hex matches the terrain type of that neighbor.  Otherwise the new hex is of the indicated type.  What ends up happening is that the number of “already-explored” hexes surrounding a new hex increases the likelihood that the new terrain will match a neighbor.  If the new terrain type doesn’t make sense, adjust according to a few simple rules. For example: desert and jungle can’t be neighbors…so the new hex is changed to savannah/veldt instead.

Draw more cards to determine natives, special discoveries, and water features. Due to the focus of the game on exploring Africa’s waterways, additional complex rules govern river generation. Sans the river rules, the system would be streamlined enough for improv RPG hexcrawl play.  As is, it’s maybe too fiddly for that purpose.

The hexes generated are about 100 miles across and the game turns are a month long, so larger scale than what most RPGs use, but I think the system would work just as well at a smaller scale.

Pros: Makes sensible maps of satisfying complexity and detail, with neighboring hexes strongly influencing terrain type of a new hex.

Cons: Tailored for large scale Africa terrain but system could be generalized.  Crazy complex river gen rules…

Flowchart for generating rivers!!!

Flowchart for generating rivers!!!

Regarding rumors

SotN also has a basic method of incorporating rumors into the map:  Eight markers are placed on the blank map at the beginning if the game. Four are blank (false rumors) and four indicate legendary discoveries (King Solomon’s Mine, Lost Tribe, Lost Civilization, and Dr. Livingstone).

Here’s a special rules supplement for SotN that includes an additional rumors system when Dr. Livingstone is found. The concept could be adapted to RPGs. The basic idea is that specific rumors come from specific NPCs.  When creating an NPC, make note if any areas on the map that the NPC may know something about. When the players meet that NPC, add the NPC’s knowledge to the map, perhaps in sketchy details only.

Another idea I had for rumors in an improv map gen system dates back to when I was thinking of ways to use Magic cards with D&D.  Use different stacks of land cards to randomly create different regions on a map and when a rumor is told about some specific place, put that card into that stack.

For example, say you have a region on the map called Habadabump that consists primarily of forest and mountains. The DM makes a stack of mostly Forest and Mountain cards. When the players hear a rumor of the Howling Mine in Habadabump, the DM adds the Howling Mine card to that region’s stack. So the players know the general direction to the mine, but not the exact location. When exploring Habadabump, eventually the Howling Mine card will be drawn.

Regarding starvation

Bonus secttion…because Telecanter posted about simple survival rules the other day.

In SotN, rations are only consumed when hunting fails. Hirelings desert if they aren’t fed.  Explorers (i. e. the PCs) get sick if no food is available and must be carried by hirelings (except the hirelings have probably all deserted!).  If you are fortunate, you can crawl back to a port city.  Or you can try your luck with the natives.

In Isle of the Ape, Gygax’s take is similar to SotN (not surprising since Gygax played SotN)… Lack of rations can lead to disease instead of direct HP damage. Disease then causes Attribute damage, which eventually leads to death (when attributes reduced to zero) if not treated. One thing I like about this is how Cure Disease, Create Food, and Purify Water spells can directly overcome the harsh conditions, but not Cure Light Wounds.

My preference is to not meticulously track supplies.  Whenever a food shortage event occurs, movement rates are reduced by half.  Basically, a food shortage doesn’t kill directly, but indirectly due to the increased number of encounters inherent in a slower movement rate. Death comes in adventure, not in emaciation.

“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Oerth.”

Last week’s post about Isle of the Ape asked the question: is the module a walk in the park?  Player ingenuity can trump adventure difficulty at any time, but Isle of the Ape is not a cakewalk.  Recall what Gygax say’s in the module’s introduction:

…if you DM this module according to the rules of the game, and its spirit, the best of players are going to be in real trouble before very long.   There are not many tricks, traps or clever devices here.  This is an adventure of attrition.  The place is literally infested with horrible monsters, and the sheer numbers of huge, man-eating creatures will soon take toll on the PCs.

That last sentence suggests that it’s the giant monsters that will run the characters off the island. That’s only half of the story. In a later section called “Island Conditions”, Gygax reveals the “rules of the game” that the DM should enforce to make life difficult for the characters:

  • Attrition.  I like this idea of establishing and reinforcing the theme of a harsh jungle by making the characters’ equipment (even magic items) susceptible to deterioration and rot.  It gives jungle exploration a new strategic dimension.  What I don’t like is the cumbersome rules that Gygax provides for determining the cumulative chance each day of each item becoming unusable.  I suspect that many DMs ignored these rules due to their tediousness, which changes the nature of the module’s overriding challenge.
  • Disease.  The disease rules that Gygax presents in this section are quite harsh (25% chance of affliction per day), but I do like the simple mechanics provided for tracking the cumulative debilitating effect of jungle disease:  …this will be reflected by the loss of 1 point from each characteristic per day.  When all stats are at 0, the character is dead.  Cure Disease will relieve all sickness, but lost points will take 1 day each to be restored. (Begin at the bottom and work up, i.e., Comeliness, Charisma, Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom, Intelligence, and finally Strength.) What is lost in a single day of illness takes seven full days to recover!
  • Food.  Gygax states:  Eating the natural fare of the island doubles chances of disease.  Purify Food & Drink spells are sufficient to ensure that spoiled food is safely edible.  I like how these food and drink rules are directly linked to the Disease rules.  Bring as many iron rations as you can, but even those may rot before use.  Magic can be used to overcome these difficulties…at least until the magic items and spellbooks begin to rot.

Yes, the steady stream of encounters with large monsters are not to be overlooked, but the real PC killers on the Isle of the Ape are these entwined rules for Attrition, Disease, and Food.  The big dinos, large tribes, and apes are just the flashy bait.  Gygax has set a trap for high-level characters by introducing persistently harsh environmental conditions that the players likely hadn’t experienced previously and mess with their strategic calculus.

I still think it would be fun to try with 1st level characters equipped with machine guns.  And grenades. And C-rations.  And air support.

(My own Jungle Travel System incorporates some of these ideas of attrition, disease, and food having a gradual effect on jungle expeditions, but with reduced harshness and simplified execution.)

The module comes with a nice "treasure map" poster handout.

Other observations about this module:

It could have used another round or two of editing.  For example, in several cases the DM maps don’t match the description in the text.  Some things were downright confusing.  Maybe some of that is just Gygax’s style.  Maybe production of the module was rushed, a product of the changing tides at TSR in the mid-80s.

Tactical details of main encounter areas such as the tribal villages and the cave lair of Oonga, the big boss ape, are well described.  I get a kick out the the extended descriptions of  the big ape’s brutal attacks modes:

If he grasps and opponent, Oonga can apply squeezing damage equal to the maximum hand attack–24 points per round of crushing pressure.  Once grasped and squeezed, an opponent will be brought forth, raised to a height of 40 feet, and hurled down.  Damage from such attack is 22-72 points (10d6 + 12), and the victim will also suffer a stamping attack immediately during the same round

Gygax continues describing the attack and damage capabilities of the big apes for several more paragraphs here, then describes it all again in greater detail in the  “New Monsters” section in the back of the book.  I can imagine the disappointment of a DM who studied and memorized Oonga’s tactics and damage capability with glee, only to have the players pop the big guy with a Disintegrate spell in round 1.

I like how Gygax refers to the head tribal magic-users as the "Big Witch Doctor" (aka "BWD") and the "Shaman of Shamen" instead of assigning specific names

There are several elements in Isle of the Ape that remind the DM and players that this isn’t just a wild jungle island: it’s the sadistic testing grounds of Zagyg, Gygax’s alter-ego deity in the Greyhawk setting.  These have a “whoa, that’s fantastically bizarre and not what I expected to find on this island” quality to them, making the module more than just a jungle romp against pulp cliché:

The Rocky Islet is a magical rest zone that Zagyg provides to adventurers.  He’s not a total meanie after all. But there’s a catch and the characters must be true to their alignment to benefit from this oasis.

The Magic Pool and Spheres of Thought are an opportunity for the characters to get inside the mind of Zagyg and learn some of the island’s secrets and perhaps a powerful spell or two.  But at the risk of insanity or being held “at the service of the demi-god for 1d10 years.”

The Passageway and Crystal Prism constitute the module’s endgame, tying in the dimensional maneuverings of the powerful cosmic entities that inhabit the Greyhawk setting.  The Passageway is a nice little puzzle to complicate removal of a vast treasure hoard, but the Crystal Prism is too “out there” for me to ever consider using, especially because I’m not really interested in the Greyhawk cosmology.

Overall, I’d rate Isle of the Ape as the best jungle module of the TSR era.  I can see why it’s not universally loved, but remove the railroad introduction and Greyhawk connections and there’s enough good stuff remaining to serve as a nice jungle sandbox setting.  Or cannibalize parts of it into your own jungle island setting.

Dare pass through the "titanic gates" and into Oonga's jungle realm?

I’ve noted before that WG6 Isle of the Ape by Gary Gygax is one of only a handful of TSR-era modules specifically set in a jungle environment.  I’ve never considered running it before, mainly because it’s advertised as a very high-level module (levels 18+) and the opportunity has never presented itself.  Also, it doesn’t seem to be a highly regarded module, rarely showing up on lists of favorite Gygax or Greyhawk modules.

I’m taking a closer look at it.  I wonder if it could be played at reduced levels by removing the “stuck in an alternate dimension until the magic doohickey is found” railroady setup and just approach it as a place to explore for the glory and riches of it.  Also, it’s the last module that Gygax published with TSR, so maybe there’s some good “High Gygaxian” crazy talk to be found within.

Right off the bat, the introduction has this dire warning:

The place you are about to send your Player Characters is a very deadly one indeed.  … remember this: if you DM this module according to the rules of the game, and its spirit, the best of players are going to be in real trouble before very long. 

Groovy.  I appreciate the straight talk.  But this is no Tomb of Horrors.  Gygax continues…

There are not many tricks, traps or clever devices here.  This is an adventure of attrition.  The place is literally infested with horrible monsters, and the sheer numbers of huge, man-eating creatures will soon take toll on the PCs.  

The point of all this preamble is to exhort you to be tough.  That’s right, don’t allow any sympathy to interfere with the game as it is designed.  Too many players are marching around claiming that they have characters able to handle anything. Now is the time to let them demonstrate the mettle of these invincible characters they have.

It’s funny to read what Gygax says here, then read this Dragonsfoot thread were a DM tells the story of how his players immediately hopped on their Flying Carpet, cruised to the highest mountain on the island, and promptly took out King Kong with a gas grenade.  Other players simply zapped the big monkey with a disintegration spell, likely covering the island with an inch-thick layer of ash.

Despite encounters with hundreds of island natives, it seems as if it’s mostly just a bunch of singular huge monsters that make Isle of the Ape a high-level module.  Easy enough to run away from.  I should try this module with 1st level characters.  Maybe give them machine guns or something.

High level adventures can be hard to design if the focus is on straight up combat.  Further complicating things is the variety of powerful magic items that the PCs may have at their disposal.  Gygax conjures up a vision of PCs arriving on the Isle with a pack train loaded down with fireball wands and blasting horns…

The players can bring along a vast array of magical items, providing that they have the means to cart them along.  Remember what will function and what will not.  Also be sure that you keep track of where all items are stored.  If, for instance, they pack a magical bag or hole full of goodies, require them to go through the whole thing in order to retrieve something.  This will take lots of game time. 

I’m envisioning a distraught Klaus Kinski kicking mules and strangling capuchins after spending five minutes and still not finding that folding boat that he knew he packed somewhere in that bag of holding full of elvish boots and girdles of strength.

Gygax then offers an idea for recreating this physical comedy at the gaming table:

To illustrate this point to them, gather up some smallish, disparate items, and put them in to a pillow case or similar container.  Then, indicate a singular item (say a pen representing a wand) as one that is to be drawn out.  Count.  If the contents are dumped out, the item can be obtained with fair rapidity.  If an arm is thrown in to the container, it will take a long time to find, for you will have placed other objects of similar size and shape therein to simulate the difficulty of retrieving items from such a bag.  A portable hole will absolutely require emptying–or crawling into–for retrieval of items.  Meanwhile, adversaries will be attacking.

I actually might try that sometime.

I’m still reading through the module, so may post more about it in the future.  For now, I end this post with Gygax’s description of the jungle island…

From a distance, the Isle of the Ape appears to be a pile of jagged mountains sprinkles with smoking volcanoes.  At night these cones give the place a dim, hellish glow.  Of course, fog and clouds enshroud the place most of the time, so only portions of the island can usually be seen, and then only from relatively close proximity.

The central mass is a gradually sloping basic, a saucer, if you will, where the daily downpouring of rain collects to form a large lake and surrounding swamp.  This slowly drains because the water has managed to cut a bed that leads underground and empties via a 200-foot-long waterfall on the west coast of the island.  The whole place is very warm, and its is muggy and steaming hot in the central morass of swamp and jungle.

Jungle is a combination of rainforest, with attendant huge trees, and true jungle.  The entire place is a riot of huge mosses and great ferns, with every imaginable sort of palm and cycadeoid, vine and liana filling the spaces between the larger growths.  Where water fills low spots mighty rushes and towering reeds spring up.  Far overhead are many small lizards, snakes, and toothed birds–as well as pterodactyls of all sizes.  Lower down are somewhat larger reptiles and all sorts of flying and crawling insects.  At ground level the same is true.  Everywhere there are all forms of living things–insects, invertebrates, reptiles, and the ponderous herbivorous dinosaurs hunted by the swift carnivorous ones.

In general, when I think of AD&D 2nd Edition I think “too much”.  Too much rules supplements.  Too much campaign settings and too much product for those settings.  No doubt there are some good products from that era, but so much of it seems watered down and overdone.

Compared to other camping setting product lines from the era, the Al-Qadim setting seems modest.  Only 14 products released over the span of a few years.  The visual style of the books is restrained.  Functional but attractive with gold border designs.  Not over-stylized like Planescape and Dark Sun, but not with a bland layout  and style like a lot of what TSR made in the 90s.  The setting has a nice sword & sorcery vibe to it with the gritty adventure of a hot desert and the exotic wonder of a thousand and one cool nights.  Overall, I nominate Al-Qadim as an under appreciated gem of the AD&D 2E era.

All that being said, I only own one Al-Qadim product:  Ruined Kingdoms by Steven Kurtz.  Of course, it has jungles.


Ruined Kingdoms is like the seven other Al-Qadim adventure sets in that it consists of a thin but sturdy box containing many pieces.  In this box:  64-page Adventure book, 32-page Campaign book, 8-page Monster book, six cardstock accessory sheets, and a color fold-out map.

The six cardstock sheets are full color on one side, intended to be shown to the players at various times during the adventures in the Adventure book.  Little props like this are handy.  The other side contains DM info such as maps and stats.

The Al-Qadim world maps are some of the best TSR ever produced.  The Ruined Kingdoms poster map is a fine example.  A functional cartographic style with effective use of color and texture.  Thematic icons to represent noteworthy sites such as ruins and cities.  This map alone can be used as inspiration and roots of a sandbox campaign.  Here is a portion of it:

The meat of Ruined Kingdoms is the 64-page Adventure book and 32-page Campaign book.

The campaign book provides enough details to communicate and support the general theme of a Ruined Kingdoms campaign.  It starts with a brief history of the land, outlining the kingdoms that have ruled there in the past but now exist only as ruins and deadly magic in the jungle.  Next, it describes the magical legacy of the Geomancers, an extinct culture of earth elementalists.  The Geoglyphs that they left behind makes exploring their ruins particularly dangerous.  Then, the crocodile Cult of Ragarra is efficiently described and presented as a potentially powerful friend or foe of the PCs.  Next, four cities are presented: Dihliz, Kadarasto, Medina al-Afyal, and Rog’osto. These cities are described in enough detail (about 2 pages each) to give each its own flavor and adventuring possibilities without getting bogged down with mundane details.  The origins of Rog’osto is especially cool.  Finally, some magic items found in the Ruined Kingdoms are described, offering more ideas and lures to adventure.

Overall, the Campaign book is a good balance of detail and openended-ness that supports a classic D&D theme:  exploring and plundering the magical ruins of past kingdoms.  In the jungle, no less!  Furthermore, any of the components could also be swiped for use in your own jungle campaign.  Just a nice little book of ideas.

Unfortunately, I felt most of the nine scenarios in the Adventure book don’t live up to the potential of the Campaign book.  For better or worse, there is a plot to it all, giving it the feel of an adventure path.  The story is ok but not exactly original, involving a long dead sorcerer rising again in hopes of reviving the Geomancer empire, which the PCs must thwart. Only a few of the adventures deal directly with that plot, the other adventures serving as filler, some of which are no more than a single encounter.  It’s a little railroad-y, but not overwhelmingly so, and the individual adventures could be easily adapted for use in your own campaign if you liked a particular one.  My favorites are the ones that involve jungle ruins, delivering on the potential of the Campaign book:

Adventure #5: Talisman.  Travel through the jungle to battle the crocodile Cult of Raggara at the Temple of the Serpentine Empress.

Adventure #7: Secrets of the Seal.  Journey to the Isle of the Elephant to find the underground ruins of Al-Asirr and the holy avenger scimitar: Breaker of the Ninth Chain.

An example of page layout and illustration style in Ruined Kingdoms. This one is from the Talisman adventure.

Honorable mention goes to Adventure #9: Kismet, for being a nice set piece lich’s lair deep in the jungle with a nice color map card and challenging final battle.  Unfortunately, it is assumed that the PCs will travel to the lair on a magic carpet, missing out on the fun (for who?) of stomping through the jungle.  Indeed, like many jungle modules, travel through the jungle is glossed over for the most part.  For example, introduction to adventure #5 Talisman suggests:

“Take your time describing the noises, sights, and smells of the jungle: stress the unusual abundance of water and cool rainfall in the mornings and evenings; the persistent chatter of the birds, animals, and insects (at night, this can be unnerving until the party becomes accustomed to it); the magnificent hardwood trees stretching into a canopy far overhead; the crumbling stone ruins, which occasionally peek from beneath a carpet of vines and creepers; and the delicate smell of orchids, gently wafting down from the canopy overhead.  To relieve any mounting tension, feel free to run one or two simple encounters, perhaps with a family of wild boars or a giant hornet looking for food.”

A nice effort, but it basically just tells the DM to give some flowery jungle-y descriptions and toss in a few jungle-y encounters.  As I’ve mentioned before on this site, the shortcomings of existing jungle modules is what led me to create the Jungle Event and Travel System.

To summarize my thoughts on Ruined Kingdoms:  Great maps, props, and clean, functional book design.  The Campaign book got me interested in running a campaign in the Ruined Kingdoms, but I would use only a few of the scenarios in the Adventure book.  More likely is that I’ll get value from Ruined Kingdoms by stealing bits and pieces for my own setting.

Any book I take on vacation seems to become tattered by the end, so I figured I’d grab the most worn out book on my shelf for the trip to SE Asia:  The City of Singing Flame, a paperback compilation of Clark Ashton Smith stories I picked up at a used book store a couple years ago.  It fit into the pocket of whatever jeans or shorts I was wearing each day, so it really got sat on and beat up pretty good.  Of jungle-interest in the book is a short story called “The Garden of Adompha”. An excerpt:

“On palmy boles, beneath feathery-tufted foliage, the heads of eunuchs hung in bunches, like enormous black drupes.  A bare, leafless creeper was flowered with the ears of delinquent guardsmen.  Misshapen cacti were fruited with the breasts of women or foliated with their hair.  Entire limbs or torsos had been united with monstrous trees.  Some of the huge salver-like blossoms bore palpitating hears, and certain smaller blooms were centered with eyes that still opened and closed amid their lashes.  And there were other graftings, too obscene or repellent for narration.”

Let your prurient imagination meander and you’ll likely have a good idea of where the story is heading.  Grognardia discusses it briefly here.  And the entire story can be read online here, it’s quite short actually.

Though set in an enclosed garden, it definitely has jungle flavor.  It reminds me some of the old module Garden of the Plantmaster by Rob Kuntz.  I went back and reread the module this weekend and discovered that, yes, Mr. Kuntz mentions “The Garden of Adompha” as inspiration.

Garden of the Plantmaster was originally published in 1987 as part of Kuntz’s Kalibruhn setting, but its history goes all the way back to Gygax’s original Greyhawk campaign.  In 2003 it was modified and published for D&D 3.5 as part of the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting.

There is a decent review of Garden of the Plantmaster at rpg.net, so I don’t feel the need to tread the same ground here, but I do want to point out how the old and new versions differ, as well as my favorite thing about the module.

Much of the text of the new version seems to closely match the original version, except for the expanded stat blocks.  What are some differences?

Whereas original has essentially a “your party teleports to another dimension” hook into the adventure, the new version has an extended intro, backstory, and railroad hook to get the PCs into the garden.  I prefer the original’s brief intro and modular set up, but some DM’s may find the extended intro useful.  It places the garden within a vast jungle in the Kalamar setting, but it’s mostly just “read aloud to the players” text until the garden is entered, so the intro itself isn’t much to get excited about for jungle aficionados.

A benefit of the new version is that the garden map is redone and much easier to read.  The original map was rendered in a strange “extended ASCII” type style and is difficult to read.  There are slight differences between the maps, mostly connecting passages added or removed in a few places.  One major change was the addition of the summoning circle in areas 43-45.  Here is the NE section of the map, comparing the style and some changes between the old(top) and new (bottom) versions:

(Mr. Kuntz has posted a color version of the original map on his blog.  Check it out.  Much easier to read than the original b&w version.  I was curious about the module’s early electronic version, so thanks to Mr. Kuntz for making this available.)

The new version also contains an illustration section indexed to keyed locations (like S1 Tomb of Horrors and a few other TSR modules), but the 16 b&w illustrations are nothing special.  I prefer the sometimes goofy but imaginative full- and half-page b&w art sprinkled throughout the original version.

Lastly, my biggest disappointment with the new version is that the appendix of monsters is not illustrated.  The original version has a simple 1E Monster Manual-esque drawing of each of the 20+ new monsters.  Not fine art, but they helped visualize some of the strange monsters, especially the fungus, and loosened up the layout considerably.

The “Garden Dressing” section is my favorite part of the module, and is largely the same in both versions.  It’s a finely researched and detailed DM toolkit for garden and jungle adventures, containing:

  • d100 table of effects to determine what happens when mutated flora is discovered or eaten.
  • 20 different vines, some of which are carnivorous.
  • 151 different flowers and their meanings.
  • 10 more carnivorous plants.
  • 40 different shrubs.
  • 20 fungi.  Poisonous, edible, hallucinogenic.
  • 16 insects.
  • A list of interesting magic scroll materials found in the garden.
  • Terms of the multitude. A muster of peacocks, a knot of toads, etc.
  • A massive glossary of terms relating to insects, fungi, and vegetation of all kinds.
  • Multi-page chart of uses for herbs.
  • Not in the Garden Dressing section itself, but in the same spirit of utility, is an excellent system for generating properties of attacking flowers, as well as more info on birds, fungi, insects, and vines.  The New Monsters section is also eminently usable in any campaign.

Random tables are always appreciated and usable in many situations.  The glossary is a good idea and something that rpg supplement creators should consider for biome-specific modules and settings.  It works as a quick primer for related flora and fauna, and also as a source of evocative terms and instant inspiration.  I never would have known that “stridulate” is the term for the making of noise by rubbing two surfaces together, such as done by grasshoppers and crickets.

Hexcrawling in style.

ChicagoWiz offers fair and useful criticisms of my book.

In summary, ChicagoWiz says:  “Any setting book is going to have things that the reader can use, things they don’t like, and things that simply serve as seeds for imagination later on. Dustin’s Fire in the Jungle is exactly that. There was a lot I found in here useful right away, even outside of a jungle environment, and some things that I didn’t like. Aside from the issue with the dungeon map being difficult to use as-is, there’s not really anything “wrong” with the book that I would hold up as a red flag. The random tunnel/dungeon generators is a personal issue, and many people will no doubt find it a positive part.

I really liked Dustin’s brevity, his straight to the point approach and a few hints of what seems to be his sense of weird, whimsical and odd humor throughout. That only adds to the overall great nature of the book. I recommend this book to anyone looking to incorporate a jungle setting, or just wanting a very inexpensive sandbox setting book to use as some reference.”

ChicagoWiz played a hand in motivating me to make the supplement as good as I could make it, so I’m pleased that he gives it an overall thumbs up.  We also had a productive exchange of emails this week discussing the supplement.  Here are my responses:

Thanks for writing this review, ChicagoWiz.  A fair and useful criticism of my book.ChicagoWiz and I had a productive exchange of emails this week about what he did and didn’t like in my book. I feel my responses to him were rather longwinded, so I’ll try to summarize and just hit the highlights here:Regarding the MagCloud service. They market themselves as a magazine POD service, but really you can publish anything there. My wife and I printed our holiday cards there. Very easy to use.Advantages: Reasonable production costs for full color interior @ 20 cents per page, or 16 cents per page for bulk orders. Cheap shipping to US, Canada, and UK. Reasonable shipping elsewhere. Super easy to create, upload, and manage publications. Another big factor for me was the THICK paper stock for books of 16 pages or less.Disadvantages: Limited options for format…basically it’s all full color 8.5×11. Not much RPG stuff there currently, so I don’t expect to get any “window shopping” sales.

Regarding:
“I’ve found that random dungeon generation at the table slows things down and seems – at least to me – to create a different feel to the game, almost like a gambling game or card game.”

This is fair criticism, and one I recognize. The Tunnel Event system is an attempt to abstract the essential tension of dungeoneering: “Should we continue deeper in search of greater reward at greater risk, or return to the surface while we are still alive and know where we are?” The intent was to enable exploration of a complex, changing, and unmappable tunnel system, while still retaining that essence of dungeoneering. The side effect of additional abstraction (beyond what abstraction D&D already contains) is that it may begin to feel more “gamey”. Indeed, it may not be to the taste of some roleplayers, but I think the general concept has potential and I’m eager to learn of other techniques for accomplishing what it tries to do.

Regarding:
“…but it was that very view and the color selection that made the map difficult to use. There’s no grid, and just a ruler that lays out what is 5′, 30′ and so on. If the DM has to escalate by turns, and you’re using movement to measure how long a turn is, this map is going to frustrate you.”A valid criticism of the Tomb of the Monkey God, especially regarding the problem of reconciling the turn-based escalation system with the non-gridded map. ChicagoWiz clarified to me that he liked the presentation and structure of the map, but didn’t like the lack of measurement grid. I didn’t include a measurement grid because I prefer to “eyeball” the length of corridors. My intention was to discourage square-counting and encourage a faster, off-the-cuff playstyle, but ChicagoWiz brought to my attention that a grid can also help encourage that playstyle via the time-saving convenience it provides the DM.I’ve come to realize that ChicagoWiz and I have a similar playstyle, but because most of my play these days is via email, the tools that help me run games might be too clunky to be of use to him DMing a fast-paced tabletop session. For him, the random dungeon generation systems are more useful as a prep tool.Also, to clarify how I view the relationship between the Ant Tunnel Event system and the Tomb Escalation system: They are different and accomplish different purposes. The ant tunnel system says “with greater risk comes greater reward, but these tunnels are unpredictable so whatchya gonna do, punk?”. Whereas the escalation system simply says “the longer you stay in there, the more frequently you’ll encounter wandering monsters, so hurry yer ass up!”Lastly (and this has nothing to do with this review but is just something I wanted to make note of), to give credit where it is due, the escalation system I use in the Tomb of the Monkey God is based on the system Paul Jaquays used in his “Crypts of Arcadia” adventure contained in his classic Book of Treasure Maps.

Over at his tavern, Tenkar posted a mini review of the Fire in the Jungle supplement.  I’m happy to learn that he found it packed with useful ideas and inspiration.  By no means do I feel my little book is groundbreaking or the be-all-end-all of jungle settings, but I do believe there are some fresh, imaginative, game-able ideas in it and I thank Tenkar for helping spread the word.

Because it’s a “mini review” Tenkar doesn’t go into any detail on the flavor of the setting, but he does get across the method by which the setting is primarily presented:  random tables, simple rules sub-systems, and flavorful stuff easily adaptable to your own campaign.

Another jungle adventure just released last week: Cipactli’s Maw.

Written by Andrew Hind and Suzi Yee, published by Expeditious Retreat Press, and intended for use with the Pathfinder RPG.  I’ve never played Pathfinder, but because of the jungle factor and because I wanted to take a closer look at a product from this publisher, I paid the $6 for the PDF.  This is part of the publisher’s “1 on 1” adventure line, intended to be played by a GM and one PC, in this case a Wizard of Level 4-6.

20 B&W pages, plus color covers.  The first page is the credits and table of contents, and the last page is the OGL, so 18 pages of game content in a functional, two-column layout.  The good news is that there is almost no wasted space in the layout, only small slivers of white space at the bottom of a few pages.  The bad news is that the stat blocks for monsters, NPCs, and traps are large and plentiful.  Of course, this is only bad in the sense that it reduces the amount of “actual adventure” in the module, but Pathfinder GMs will surely appreciate having the stats handy during play.  I didn’t find any typos, except maybe one questionable word choice.  The interior art is sparse:  three drawings, two of which are simply B&W versions of the front and back cover art.

Quick overview of the 18 pages of game content:

  • One page of background, synopsis, and the hook.
  • Sixteen pages describing the four locales of the adventure:
  • Blood Brine Ruins
  • The Jungle
  • Caves of Darkness
  • Cipactli’s Maw
  • One page with stat blocks for pre-generated PC and two native guides

The background story is short, interesting, and unobtrusive, which allows this location-based adventure to be easily placed in almost any campaign.  Though the hook is framed as a quest, the adventure is essentially a treasure hunt.  The main twist of the hook is that the great treasures in the Cipactli’s Maw are heavily guarded by secret doors and traps so the PC is advised to use divination on a large ruby (originally stolen from the Maw but now entombed in the Blood Brine Ruins) to learn how a thief bypassed the Maw’s defenses long ago.

Cipactli’s Maw is sacred to the jungle natives.  The module intends for the PC to earn the respect of the natives (and the right to enter the Maw) by entering the Caves of Darkness.  Some players might be tempted to blast their way past the natives and into the Maw, thereby never learning of the Caves of Darkness.  If the GM doesn’t want to deal with that possibility, here’s an idea:  Instead of the Caves of Darkness being a “proving ground” for the PC, make them the only passage into a “lost valley” containing Cipactli’s Maw.

The three adventure locations are the meat of the adventure.  The Blood Brine Ruins, Caves of Darkness, and Cipactli’s Maw are all satisfyingly spooky, weird, and deadly places dripping with flavor.  Short and sweet and worth the price of admission. Upon reading the entire module, I discovered that these adventure locations would serve adequately as independent mini-adventures if the GM just wants to cannibalize the module for useful parts.  Or the GM may want an abbreviated session and decide to start the adventure in the Cave of Darkness or the Maw itself and proceed forward.  It’s flexible.

What about “The Jungle”?  It is described very briefly and traveling through it doesn’t seem very exciting, despite a few short encounters.  Like in many published adventures, the jungle is mostly just a scenic route from here to there.  Disappointing for me.

Other minor nitpicks:

The floor of the final treasure vault is a puzzle trap, but there is no description of how to overcome the trap, except “Characters who previously divined the Ruby Ring know how to bypass this trap, otherwise doing so requires 6 consecutive DC 20 Perception checks.”  Some players like this type of roleplaying, but I prefer a more hands-on approach to solving puzzle traps.

The two NPC native guides are a good idea and are given some depth, but “They will under no circumstance enter a ruin, cave, or other place of looming danger”.  Combine this with the fact that the jungle travel section is nondescript and is only a small fraction of the adventure, the usefulness of the guides is questionable.  Perhaps their inclusion was intended to add a little more roleplaying and character dialog to the adventure, between the three main locations.

In conclusion:

The strength of this product is its flavor and the modularity of its three main adventure locations.  The fact that it is designed for play with a single Wizard is a benefit also, but I’m not familiar enough with the Pathfinder rules to determine if the adventure is specially tuned for playing it that way.  If I were to play it with vintage D&D or a retro-clone, I’d probably just use it as a regular group adventure.

The weakness of this module is the maps.  They are functional, but very plain and linear.  The map of Cipactli’s Maw is especially dull.  It reminded me of a Dig Dug screenshot:

Tunnels in the Jungle?

 

Jungle Ruins of Madaro-Shanti by Scott Casper

This is the first release in the “One Night Stands” series from Frog God Games. I purchased the Swords & Wizardry version in a 32-page PDF. A Pathfinder version is also available.

Quick rundown of game content in the book:

  • Background info and hook.
  • Map of Jungle.
  • Rumors and Special Encounters.
  • Map of Ruined City.
  • Details of four locations in the city:  Gatehouse, Well, Palace, Dungeon.
  • Appendix describing a little more background info, clues, and new monsters.

The background info and hook are serviceable for a “one night stand”, though nothing special:  Save the helpless coastal town from the deadly black cloud approaching from deep within the jungle.  If I understand correctly, the party needs to enter the cloud to get to its source in the Ruins.  Staying in the cloud for less than three days is harmless, but any longer and it can slowly kill you.  The Ruins are at least a three day journey (unless the PCs can fly), so the death cloud seems intended to influence the party’s strategy for completing their quest (multiple short excursions?), but it’s not really explained in any more detail.  Maybe it’s just part of the hook, perhaps to explain why these special PCs are needed to save the town, where others have failed.

The map of the jungle is nice, and I hoped to find descriptions in the text of the features and locations to be found in the jungle, but there is very little.  The map is essentially useless for purposes of playing the adventure that fills the rest of the book.  I guess that is ok, since the module title only refers to the jungle ruins and not the entire jungle.  It just seems like a waste to include this nice jungle map and not really make use of it in the adventure, or suggest further adventures there.  Maybe the Frog Gods have plans to describe other areas of the jungle in future releases.

The Rumors section is only OK.  The Special Encounters, on the other hand, are very nice.  They are weird events that the PCs may experience as they travel to the Ruins, providing clues about the mystery of the black cloud and the best way to defeat it.  There is a wandering monster table too but, other than the Special Encounters, traveling through the jungle doesn’t seem very exciting here.

The outdoor map of the Ruins of Madaro-Shanti is nice, but only a small portion of it is described.  So, again, a nice map seems to go to waste in this module.  There is a ‘2’ on the map that I can’t find any description of in the text.  Reminds me some of the Mayan ruins I visited last week.

The rest of the module details the “dungeon” adventure locales:  Gatehouse, Well, Palace, and Dungeon.  Perhaps the major design feature of these parts is that some sections in the Palace and Dungeon are only accessible (via shifting walls) if certain things are done in the Gatehouse and Well.

The Gatehouse is hardly described at all, but there is a potentially interesting encounter with the Borsin (centaur-gorillas).  I wish the Borsin were given more attention in the module, but this encounter is about it.

The Well is the best part of the module.  It’s a sequence of vertically connected rooms, each trapped to make things difficult for the party.  Make a wrong move and they’ll be washed away by a torrent of water.  The traps and puzzles are nicely done with a satisfying level of difficulty, but plenty of clues too.  The stone face clues are especially good, but I wish they were drawn larger to make the details more visible and to be used as handouts.  I had to really zoom in on the PDF to see the critical details of the clue.  (UPDATE:  Enlarged player handout sheets of the stone faces can be downloaded here.)

There is an 3D isometric map of the well.  It’s cool at first glance, but not really useful.  The 2D maps adequately describe the layout and connections in the well.

Unfortunately, the Well could feel like a dead-end to the players.  There’s a little treasure down there, but the players likely won’t be aware that their actions in the Well are having an effect on what they may later find in the Palace and Dungeon, making it feel like a waste of time and risk.  They may even spend additional time looking for “something else must be here”, but won’t find anything.  I would have liked to see an additional passage from the Well to the Dungeon, other than the underground river.

The Palace and Dungeon are standard dungeon-module material.  It gets the job done and has some interesting encounters, traps, puzzles, and details about the ancient civilization.  It seems rather cramped though, and maybe could have benefited from spreading it out a bit and adding more empty areas.  That’s just my preference though, and I understand that the “One Night Stand” modules probably accomplish their stated goal better if they are compact like this.

The visual design of the module is nice, with good font use and interior art.  Unfortunately, the layout leaves a lot of white space throughout.  The white space altogether adds up to five pages of nothing.  Consider this:

  • Rework the layout to remove those five pages of nothing.
  • Remove the two pages of advertising at the end.
  • Ditch the cover art that has nothing to do with the adventure and use the B&W art on page 6 as the cover.  (Mythmere says that B&W art is by Paul Fini, but that name is nowhere in the credits.  Is it “public domain”?)

Do all that and it would be an efficient 24-page module, instead of 32.  I wonder if maybe all the white space is only present in the S&W version?  The Pathfinder version may fill up some of that space with larger stat blocks.

There are several typos.  Most embarrassing are the four consecutive sentences with typos in the description of room P15.  Hopefully this gets fixed soon.

Though this module has some nice features, I don’t think it lives up to its billing as a “sandbox style short adventure”.  The maps are nice, but there’s not enough descriptions of the surrounding jungle or of the ruined city to qualify it as a sandbox.  Maybe they use that phrase to mean “easily placed in your own sandbox setting”, which it is.  I’ll probably use the Well in play eventually.

I really wanted to love this module and say “Hey y’all, THIS is the lost city module to plug into my Fire in the Jungle setting!” but it isn’t.  Go with the old classic instead: I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City.  On the other hand, the Well, Palace, and Dungeons of Madaro-Shanti could be effectively and easily placed somewhere in the Forbidden City.

To clarify, I didn’t purchase the module expecting Dwellers of the Forbidden City (though such a comparison is reasonable whenever the words “sandbox ruined jungle city” are heard), or expecting it could be used as-is in my jungle setting. Any of that would have been a great bonus, but I bought it simply because I like jungle stuff. I still appreciate it for that reason, despite its shortcomings. For gamers that just want a One Night Stand with the jungle, it gets the job done.