Tuesday, June 24, 2008
The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, written by Matthew Finch, co-creator of OSRIC and the driving force behind Swords & Wizardry, is the first adventure produced by Expeditious Retreat Press for use with OSRIC. Unless I am mistaken, this module may have been the first commercially available OSRIC product at all. At the very least, it was the first one of which I ever heard and, in many ways, sets the standard for OSRIC support products, both in terms of its quality and, perhaps more importantly, its content. In this respect, I think it makes a nice counterpoint to the previously-reviewed Monsters of Myth, another product written with the involvement of OSRIC's creators and whose quality and content revealed the possibilities and pitfalls of the retro-clone movement.
The Pod-Caverns is a 16-page adventure module designed for 6-8 characters of levels 2-4. Its presentation is, unsurprisingly, very similar to that of the TSR AD&D modules released in the late 70s and early 80s. Even the interior layout mimics its predecessors, right down to the fonts. On some level, I have to admit that this simultaneously irked and thrilled me -- thrilled because, reading it, I was often reminded of how much I loved TSR's modules and irked because I don't think old school products must look like they were made 25 years ago. Interestingly, the maps included with the module are not collected on the interior covers of the module nor are they done in the "blueprint" style grognards associate with the Golden Age of Gaming. Personally, I had no objection to this and found myself wishing the layout were similarly "radical."
The module's interior artwork (also by Matthew Finch) is black and white and sparse, again mimicking the classic modules of old. However, Finch's artwork didn't irk me in the way that the layout sometimes did, because he wasn't aping the style of an old TSR artist. Instead, his illustrations were done in his own style and that's exactly what I wish we saw more of in old school products. I noted in an earlier entry that what annoys me most about modern gaming products is not necessarily the style of the artists who illustrate them, since I quite like many contemporary gaming artists. What annoys me is that game lines have too much art direction, resulting in a bland, evenness that simply doesn't spark my imagination. For all the technical infelicities of older gaming art, it was at least diverse and, for me, that's an essential element of good gaming art. Finch's illustrations are his own and, aside from being evocative, are unlike any other gaming artist, which is a huge positive to my mind. The cover illustration by Stefan Poag is decent, but veers a bit too much toward being imitative rather than simply expressive. I did, however, appreciate seeing a magic-user in a pointy hat and a fighter wearing a full suit of chainmail -- with coif! -- engaging in battle against some pod-men.
The module itself is true to its name, being primarily a three-level subterranean adventure locale with very little context beyond whatever the referee provides. There is a thin thread of a plot, involving the titular villain's machinations against the surface world, but the vast majority of the encounters do not hinge on it. Depending on one's own proclivities, The Pod-Caverns will thus read either as "bland" or as "open-ended." I myself found the latter adjective more apt, so much so that I was tempted, this past weekend, to insert The Pod-Caverns into an old school pick-up game set in the Wilderlands I ran with some friends. The module assumes that the referee will use it in one of two ways: the site of a frontal assault by adventurers from the surface or as an obstacle for subterranean explorers seeking to find their way back to the surface.
The encounters in the module are nicely diverse and challenging for their level. There is a good mix of monsters, including many fungi, plants, and plant-like creatures, as one would expect, interspersed with traps, tricks, and other impediments. There are also plenty of enigmas as well, by which I mean encounters that are suggestive of a wider "story" without tying the referee's hands should he wish to take one of them in a direction not intended by the author (or not take them up at all). Again, the lack of explanation may prove a source of consternation for some. There is, to cite one example, a ghast trapped inside a pillar "for centuries" but there is no explanation as to how or why this imprisonment occurred or why a certain method will release him from the pillar. This approach epitomizes the old school philosophy, though: present the "facts" of the adventure locale and let the referee decide on their meaning, if any. All in all, I found The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom very evocative and, at times, downright creepy, but then I've long felt fungi were disturbing and this module nicely plays on those fears in a way that reminds me of the best modules of days gone by.
If I have a complaint about The Pod-Caverns it is about its production values. Don't get me wrong: the module is well made and presented. However, I fear that the layout and trade dress go beyond homage to the past and verge on fetishization. Granted, the module was almost certainly written to appeal exclusively to grognards and I can't deny that reading it frequently transported me back to the summer of 1980, when playing AD&D with my friends formed my primary source of entertainment. Nevertheless, I think this exclusivity, whether conscious or not, is unfortunate, because The Pod-Caverns is a terrific example of an old school module and it's highly unlikely that anyone except dyed in the wool old schoolers will ever read it. We already know what old school means and is all about; it's the younger generation that doesn't understand and I just don't see them going into their local gaming store and picking this module up. I say that with some considerable regret, as this is a finely crafted piece of work that deserves to be better known and appreciated.
I continue to believe that a worthwhile experiment would be for someone to release an old school product that doesn't ape the presentation of the past but instead employs more contemporary media. I'm not talking about the ludicrous "dungeonpunk" of 3e or the over the top action of 4e. I'm also not suggesting the use of anime/manga esthetics or indeed anything that would smack of a video game. However, I think there's a world of difference between these things and getting away from doing faux Sutherland, Trampier, and Otus drawings, never mind a layout that's not just two-column text in a bland sans serif font. The fact is that there have been advances in the realm of game presentation and illustration, even if game content may well have degenerated or at least changed in unhealthy ways. For me, a marriage between modern graphic design and traditional content would be ideal and I can't help but think that gems like The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom could achieve wider recognition and success if they were presented in a way that didn't scream "nostalgia piece." I know this makes me a heretic in many old school circles, but so be it. There are some truly excellent old school products out there nowadays and we grognards have no one to blame but ourselves that they aren't better known and appreciated.
(Let me also say that, except for some trademarked terms, this module is entirely Open Game Content. Bravo for that)
Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms