Monday, April 28, 2008

REVIEW: The Living Room

Furniture which is animated to trip, confine, and smother (rugs and carpets) or move about and hug and kick (stools, chairs, divans) or blinds and throws down (tapestries and wall hangings). (Ours is known as the "Living Room".)
That's a quote from OD&D Supplement I, Greyhawk, and describes a small portion of Castle Greyhawk's environs. Last year, Rob Kuntz, player of the redoubtable Lord Robilar and co-DM of Gary Gygax's campaign, released a 7-page description (plus map) of the Living Room through his Pied Piper Publishing company. So far as I know this is the first time the Living Room has ever been described in any detail and it's a particular treat to have it described by Kuntz, its originator. I'm a sucker for gaming history -- what a surprise! -- so it was a no-brainer to pick this product up.

First things first: The Living Room (or The Original Living Room as it is called in the text, though not on its cover) is not a complete adventure module nor does it purport to be. It is, in Kuntz's words, "a set-piece." The intention is clearly that a referee can drop the Living Room into an existing dungeon or ongoing campaign of his own. In this sense, it's very much a "module," but it provides little to no context or explanation for why the Living Room is as it is. For old school referees, that's a feature, not a bug, since it offers plenty of leeway to customize or augment as he wishes.

The Living Room is not a bound book, but rather 9 pieces of laser-quality paper -- 7 pages of text, a single-page map by Eric Bergeron, and a credits and Open Game License page -- plus a cardstock cover illustrated by Jim Holloway, showing a band of comical and scruffy adventurers being attacked by the inhabitants of the Living Room. It's a classic Holloway piece, reminiscent of his work on Paranoia back in the day and nicely sets the tone for the product. One of the things that gamers sometimes forget is that old school gaming was suffused with humor of a sort I can only call "dark slapstick" -- the Three Stooges meets the Marquis de Sade, if you will. The Living Room is definitely in that tradition.

The map of the Living Room is a very small scale one, with one square equal to 2 feet rather than the more usual 10. The map shows the location of all the Room's magical inhabitants and, given its scale, could very easily be used as the basis for a miniatures battle map for those so inclined. On the whole, I'd say the map was functional but not inspired. To some extent, that's to be expected, since it details but a single room. Nonetheless, I'll admit to being a little disappointed with the map, though, as I say, the fault is not in the cartography, which does what it needs to do, but rather in my own unreasonable expectation that, somehow, the map should be "cooler" than it is.

The meat of The Living Room covers 7 pages of small type text, beginning with a history of the Living Room, including the names of individuals who played in the original campaign where it appeared. It's a who's who of old school gaming -- Ernie Gygax, Skip Williams, Tom Wham, Jim Ward, Michael Mornard, Dave LaForce and many more -- and nicely puts the Living Room in context. The product is published under the Open Game License, which would imply that it's 3e-compatible but there are in fact fairly minimal stats throughout and what stats there are seem more compatible with OD&D and AD&D, given the AC values and the use of inches for describing movement rates. At any rate, the text claims The Living Room is suitable for character levels 4-6 and that seems roughly correct for the older editions of D&D for which it was original designed. 3e characters of that level would likely have a much easier time, given their greater comparative power.

For a set-piece encounter, The Living Room contains very extensive notes for use in play. There is lots of information of how the various pieces of animated furniture and items attack, how much damage they take from various weapons and spells, and any special abilities and fun features they possess. I'll say that I was a bit overwhelmed by the level of detail here, but, at the same time, gratified, since the Living Room is intended to be a memorable encounter that's far from ordinary. I expect that it'd take the referee some time to familiarize himself with all the furnishings' abilities and stats, but that doing so would make the entire encounter run more smoothly. And since this is meant to be a "dark slapstick" encounter, smooth running is essential. This is not the sort of encounter that'd benefit from having to keep referring back to the text. The Living Room feels as if it should be run quickly, almost extemporaneously.

The remainder of the text describes the locations within the Living Room -- what the characters see, which furnishings are there and what triggers their attacks, etc. -- as well as any treasure to be found therein. Despite being only 7 pages long, there's a lot of text here and very little of it is wasted, although the boxed text descriptions of the locations are so minimal that I'm not certain they serve much purpose. Again, that's a taste issue, so I won't complain overly much about it. I do wish that there were more commentary or insights from Kuntz himself on the Living Room and how it was used in the old Greyhawk campaign. Subsequent publications from Pied Piper Publishing (to be reviewed here later) do in fact include such things and I'm grateful for that, but I feel they'd have been useful in The Living Room too.

As a piece of gaming history, I think The Living Room is terrific. As a gaming product, I'm torn. At $9.95, I think it's pricey, especially when you consider that it has no art except the cover, no binding, and is laid out like a Microsoft Word text document. Likewise, the OGL's Section 15 isn't filled out correctly and there is no indication that anything within the text is Open Content (or Product Identity for that matter), suggesting that Pied Piper didn't quite understand how the OGL works. Honestly, I don't even think the OGL was necessary here, but, since they did include it, I'd have liked to have seen it used properly.

Again, it's a quibble. However, it reinforces my impression of The Living Room as "amateurish." I do not mean that as a criticism. In this case, the product is extremely charming and I am glad I own it. It oozes with old school feel and is a reminder of a style of play that has long since disappeared from contemporary gaming. I'm glad Kuntz and Pied Piper are making products like this. I do wish that either the price had been lower or the physical qualities of the product had been higher. It's an early product of Pied Piper, though, and I am accustomed to high prices for old school products given the small audience of interested buyers, so I'm willing to overlook it in this case.

Final Score: 3 out of 5 Polearms

9 comments:

  1. **snrk!** 3 out 5 polearms! But are they halberds or fauchards, glaives or bardiches?

    More topically, as a longtime lover of Modules EX1 and EX2, I hope to read more about "dark slapstick." I have the impression that this was even more pronounced in non-TSR titles, but haven't got the collection to check!

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  2. I'm a halberd man myself -- good reach, solid damage, and the best bonuses against a wide range of AC types.

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  3. THERE'S A JIM HOLLOWAY ART PAGE ON THE 'NET!!!1!ELEVEN!!!

    When did this show up? I've been searching for Holloway art for years now.

    - Brian

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  4. Have Bohemian Earspoons lost their comic force through over-use? Then I'll have to go with a bec de corbin.

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  5. From The Bottle City:
    . . . Our best players knew to expect a hard challenge and a dangerous setting and were therefore more cautious, had tricks and strategies planned in advance, and proceeded more carefully through the adventuring steps, taking their time to think about accumulated information and rising situations. They organized the party as best as possible to act as a unit and tried to make plans for every possible situation. They were a pain, for sure, for this approach called for more planning and counter-strategies on our parts as GMs, lest they continue bulldozing through our "wonderful" creations . . .

    It would have been nice to sit in on a couple of their sessions. I don't think I have ever heard about such detailed party planning as a standard operating procedure.

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  6. Re: detailed party planning

    Seriously? That was pretty much SOP for most of the people I played with back in the day. It's the "adventuring party as SWAT team" mentality that was very common prior to the mid-80s or so. You simply didn't survive dungeons if you didn't take them seriously, or such was my experience anyway.

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  7. Same here. When your standard encounter might actually result in a TPK if the PCs don't stay on their toes, and there's no assumption of nibbling away 1/4th your resources, you set up all sorts of contingency plans and do your best to know exactly how your going to tackle every challenge.

    Still, that sort of play isn't for everyone. It's slow and methodical, and involves lots of scouting and research beforehand. If you prefer to sweep through a dungeon, just kicking in doors and flinging death about with abandon, the more methodical sort of play will bore you to tears.

    - Brian

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  8. Re: methodical play

    I think you're definitely on to something here and it's one of the reasons why a lot of grognards are cranky and short-tempered these days. They can see over the horizon to when the style of play they enjoy isn't even a memory and it's very frustrating. I can't really say I blame them. These are the guys who built this hobby and a lot of what they loved about it isn't just fading to a minority view, but is in danger of disappearing entirely aided and abetted by the current caretakers of the D&D name. I think they have every right to be cranky.

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