Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review: The Well of Souls and The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad

This is technically two reviews, since we're talking about two adventures; The Well of Souls is billed as an introductory adventure, and The Vaults of Zadabad is its immediate sequel.  Both are sold by Stormlord Publishing, with both being penned by Carl Bussler, with Eric Hoffman on Treasure Vaults. You can find them on DriveThru, but The Vaults of Zadabad has versions for DCC and Swords and Wizardry.  I have both adventures for DCC, in PDF format, and that's what I'll be reviewing here.

I'll start off, as usual, by ruining the suspense by giving my overall verdict: these are excellent adventures.  You get the sense that Carl and Eric are listening to folks like Bryce at his tenfootpole blog, who has a very clear and well-considered set of criteria for what makes a tabletop RPG adventure good.

Plot and such

Before I get to what makes these products work (and what they could do better), let's establish what these adventures are all about.  In terms of things like atmosphere and the type of setting, I'd say the general vibe is Appendix N exotica.  In particular, Treasure Vaults is set on a tropical island with diminutive natives, pirates, and those sorts of things.  The names of things seems to trade in that kind of pulpy orientalism.

This may seem old-fashioned or even offensive to some, but anyone who has been around OSR will be familiar with these trappings.  For what it's worth, this is all done with a very knowing wink, making it clear that this is aware that it isn't exactly anthropology.  In addition, I didn't perceive any offensive stereotypes, and the whole thing is easily re-skinned.

This flexibility is inherent to both adventures.  There's an absolute minimum of exposition, and the tone is writing is very neutral.  The encounters are very much presented in the manner of "here you go," leaving both GM and players to make the most of the environment.

The Well of Souls

Well is a very straightforward DCC adventure that would be suitable either for a 1st level party or a Funnel.  

The premise is simple: you're going into the Well of Souls, a partially-flooded underground dungeon.  That's fine by me.  As a GM, it's ultimately necessary for me to customize my adventure hooks to the current campaign, and while it's nice to have some guidance from published adventures, this one's simple enough that we can dispense with that.  We're going into the dungeon.  Sounds good.

The actual Well is a pretty small affair, with seven locations that are largely arrayed in a ring.  This isn't immediately apparent, due to secret doors and that sort of thing.  Although this is a pretty simplistic floorplan, it's sufficiently non-linear for seven rooms, I suppose.

The encounters themselves are good intro dungeoneering stuff.  There are a couple of creatures to fight, and a few traps and puzzles.  Nothing overwhelming or mind-blowing, but nicely varied.  In particular, there's one puzzle with a mathematical basis that is definitely not simple, and somewhat dangerous. So it's not overwhelming, but no cakewalk.

There aren't really any social encounters in Well, unless you count the old geezer who leads you to the titular Well, and dispenses a few rumors.  Well, this is intro stuff, so faction play would be a bit much, but I generally like to have at least one or two interactions beyond ponder and fight.

There's a number of treasures in the Well that are interesting and possessing of character.  No earth-shaking magic items or piles of gems, but some quirky minor magic items and realistic treasure in the form of ancient artifacts and inlaid fine metals to be pried into the pockets of grubby tomb robbers.  One of these treasures is the Crescent Rod (essentially a crescent wrench), and it is an important key for various features of the sequel adventure, The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad.

By the way, I still have no idea what the Well actually is.  Tomb?  There's some animated skeletons in one part, I guess...

The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad

The sequel completely inverts the minimalism of the first adventure.  Where the Well map consists of a seven-room layout in a simple ring, the island of Kalmatta (the setting of Treasure Vaults) is a hexcrawl with random encounters and twenty-two distinct locations (many of which have their own maps).  Where the Well was a simple dungeon crawl with puzzles, traps and light combat, the island is a complex web of different parties with different agendas and stories.

As a result, it's hard to sum this one up.  The premise is a little more complicated than the one for Well, but not by much: you have found the Crescent Rod, and it has led you to the legends of the Treasure Vaults of Zadabad on the island of Kalmatta.  So you have come to Kalmatta to look for said vaults full of treasure.  The end.  Well, actually, that's the beginning.

There is a hub settlement that the party is expected to be deposited at, and there's another one to be found by exploring adventurers.  There's also a smuggler's cove, which has the potential to be a hazard, a minor trading hub, or something in between.  Plus the smugglers don't get along with the hunting party a few hexes away.  The hunters are a reasonably friendly group, and they will be impressed if the PCs show them any trophies of megafauna they have brought down on the island.  Of which there are several, of course.

So there are interactions between these different encounters, and they are all very open-ended.  There are a number of tombs to be robbed, and attentive players will uncover their interlocking story of love and loss.  Knowledge of this story can be useful, but it is by no means necessary.

Anywhere, there's a whole bunch of encounters like these.  If there's a central plot to this, it's that the adventurers are (presumably) seeking those Treasure Vaults.  Which do exist.  But nobody's forcing them, and it's entirely conceivable that they could become very preoccupied with things like the shipwrecked pirates, desperate to commandeer a way off the island.  Or the artifacts that can be used to resurrect the concubine of the long-dead vizier.  Or the hermit shaman who can be coaxed to teach wizards how to create plant constructs.

I think you get the picture.

Overall impressions

The real reason to talk about The Well of Souls is because it's the perfectly serviceable lead-in to The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad.  I content that Treasure Vaults is an understated OSR masterwork.  It gives a good GM all the tools they need to make engaging encounters, and it does this in a minimalist fashion.  

By minimalism, I don't mean the bad kind of minimalism, where encounters are barely more than a couple of nouns and a stat box.  I mean the good kind of minimalism, where no time is wasted on exposition that you probably have to throw out anyway to fit the adventure in your campaign.  These adventures have just the right amount of detail, where the descriptive elements are few but memorable, and you have enough to start asking the GM questions.

In that sense, I've found that a good description is like a good Powerpoint slide in a business presentation; it's good to leave stuff out.  In both cases, you can essentially force your audience to ask you questions, by providing them with interesting pieces of information (e.g. there are angry thrashing horse-sized iguanas charging your camp) and leaving out important pieces of information (e.g. how many, how far away they are, etc.).

For these reasons, Treasure Vaults is extremely compact at forty-six pages, including the cover and usual OGL legal.  There's a lot going on here.  I could easily imagine a group getting over a dozen sessions out of this, just from the content on the pages.  Based on player decisions and GM improvisation, I could see many of these individual encounters spiraling off into separate adventures. 

Consider that one of the plotlines of Treasure Vaults is that you can raise a certain noble woman from the dead using several scattered artifacts of her deceased lover.  This is by no means an easy thing to do.  And yet, there is no hint as to what will actually happen if this is achieved!  I'm still not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing; there can be such a thing as being too open-ended.

Speaking of which, in the titular Vaults, you find a device that allows you to open portals to 27 other worlds.  Nine of these are supposed to be hostile, nine are supposed to be fair, and nine are supposed to be mundane.  That's all the guidance we get.  Hey, Carl and Eric: bite my ass.  My players are going to use this, goddamn it, so now I'm going to have to design a bunch of new settings.

Anyway...some steps are taken to present these materials in ways that are useful "at the table."  In Well, the map is broken into segments, which are displayed close to their room descriptions.  This is a nice touch, although I'm not sure it was necessary for such a small map.  Also, it took some puzzling and careful reading to understand the circular nature of the map, and based on some of the comments I've seen, others were also unnecessarily confused.  But I still like breaking the map into segments, since it allows it to zoom in.

For Treasure Vaults, organization was more important.  Appendices for magic items and encounter stats were welcome.  The tables are maps were all very readable, and the minimalist nature of things makes it easy to skim during play. It's easy to underestimate the value of this last one.


The Well of Souls

  • Small adventure on a small map
  • Puzzles with a little combat
  • Nice flavor with a light touch
  • Danger level fairly low, but not a cakewalk
  • Good treasure design
  • Very minimalist
    • Mostly a good thing
    • Could use an explanation of what the Well is
    • Should be more clear about the architecture
Verdict: Solid intro adventure

The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad

  • Open-ended hexcrawl on an island
  • Many opportunities for social interactions
  • Lots of relationships between encounters
  • No singular narrative but many stories
  • Lightly "exotic" tropical flavor
  • Danger level is moderate; PCs can end up with entire villages or bands of pirates chasing them
  • Again, nice subtle treasure with character
  • Again, minimalist
    • Doesn't crowd your imagination
    • Easier for organization
    • Should have some suggestions for consequences of resurrecting the Pharess
    • What's up with those portals, guys?  I already have something like that in my campaign, thank you very much, so I don't need to come up with twenty-seven new universes.  I feel like you're trolling us, with this one.
Verdict: Stuffed with great content, this is a potential classic

No comments:

Post a Comment