Tuesday, June 24, 2008

REVIEW: The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom


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

21 comments:

  1. However, I fear that the layout and trade dress go beyond homage to the past and verge on fetishization.

    I quite agree, but to play devil's advocate for a moment, it seems that the argument could be made that fetishisation of layout/design in this module is merely a reflection of the fetishisation of system/flavour embodied in OSRIC itself (and indeed all Old School D&D clones). I'd be interested to hear what your response to that would be.

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  2. That's an excellent question and probably deserving of a full post soon. My short answer is that I think a preference for older system/flavor can be fetishization and in many cases is. The surest way to find out whether it is or is not is to ask the question, "Why do you prefer this over more modern stuff?" If no answer other than "Because I like it" or "Because that's how it was when I was a kid" is forthcoming, you're dealing with fetishization and nothing more. On the other hand, if your imaginary interlocutor can offer a philosophical explanation for his preferences, then there may be some basis for it.

    To date, I've never seen many good philosophical explanations for why old gaming art is better technically than modern gaming art. I've seen philosophical defenses of its content, with which I tend to agree, but not its technical aspects. On the other hand, I have heard many very cogent philosophical defenses of the mechanics and flavor of old school games, so I think we're on more solid ground there (for the most part).

    But this is a good question.

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  3. Is there something wrong with "Because I like it"?

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  4. "The fact is that there have been advances in the realm of game presentation and illustration"

    I'm going to have to disagree. They should feel free to take advantage of advances when and if they take place, but most RPG products today are just gaudy and overproduced, regardless of the style of artwork involved. If crap taht does nothing but jack up prices like glossy pages, pages with obnoxious background illustrations or watermarks obscuring the text, and hard covers for everything are some of the "advances", I say no way.

    To me, the fact is that physical presentation was yet another thing that TSR under Gygax just got right.

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  5. "I've seen philosophical defenses of its content, with which I tend to agree, but not its technical aspects."

    Perhaps seeing "technique" as some sort of end unto itself is the problem? Personally, I find it to be completely incidental to effective RPG art.

    There's and excellent article in this PDF mag called "Brilliance & Dross In RPG Artwork." I'd recommend checking it out.

    http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/panurge/imazine37.pdf

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  6. Is there something wrong with "Because I like it"?

    Not at all, but it's not very useful as an explanation. I understand simply liking things without any qualification. However, I can hardly extol the virtues of Product X when the only reason I can give for doing is an immediate esthetic reaction.

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  7. but most RPG products today are just gaudy and overproduced, regardless of the style of artwork involved. If crap taht does nothing but jack up prices like glossy pages, pages with obnoxious background illustrations or watermarks obscuring the text, and hard covers for everything are some of the "advances", I say no way.

    I'm not talking about things like this. I agree that most of what you listed is unnecessary and doesn't add any value to the product. What I am talking about, though, is layout that's a bit more visually appealing than two-column text that looks as if it was done with a word processor and artwork that doesn't look like it was drawn by a child. I think there is a middle ground between the overpriced, over-produced excess of some modern games and the amateurish hackery of some past products.

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  8. There's and excellent article in this PDF mag called "Brilliance & Dross In RPG Artwork." I'd recommend checking it out.

    Yes, I read that article some time ago. I agree with the gist of it, although I think the author cherry picks the older art he chooses to use. There was lots of excellent old gaming art, but there was just as much drek. I'm glad to see that the author pointed out some excellent modern work, but, in the interests of fairness, it would have been nice to show some of the really horrendous old art.

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  9. I think artwork in older gaming products often differs from more recent artwork by:

    * Done in B&W and being more like illustrations in a book than other media (eg. comics)
    * Being B&W requires greater consideration of light / shadow and line weights than full colour artwork does
    * Being B&W like the text and page of the book itself means the artwork is more understated than full colour works
    * Showing Characters in situations rather than characters posing / posturing
    * Having more variety in design of characters and monsters -- compare the Cat Girl in "The Forest of Doom" with virtually any other artists "Cat Girl" from the past 15 years
    * Being grittier / more realistic as opposed to High Fantasy / Epic / Heroic
    * More detailed backgrounds instead of just focusing on the foreground character(s)

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  10. Stuart,

    Those are all excellent points and I think, taken together, they explain the different esthetic that permeated old school gaming. It's an esthetic I prefer and that I wish we'd see put into practice in more gaming products. But I don't think there's any reason why that esthetic need be limited to imitating what Otus or Trampier or Sutherland did. There are many ways to evoke that esthetic and what I liked about Matt Finch's illustrations was the way he stayed true to the esthetics of old school art but did his own thing. So it's not that I object at all to old school esthetics, because I don't. What I object to is the imitation of specific old school artists rather than each artist doing his own thing in service to that esthetic.

    I hope that makes sense.

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  11. Could have sworn I commented on this post earlier today, but maybe I'm just getting old...

    The flavor of Goodman Games' products seems to reproduce, to a degree, the old school feel of the D&D modules from the 80s while at the same time incorporating a more modern design aesthetic. This is particularly true of the artwork, which harkens more to something you'd see in D&D 3E products than old TSR products.

    You have a point regarding the imitation of artists, though I have to wonder whether that isn't a more existential question than it initially lets on; should artwork be closely associated with an artist, or with a style?

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  12. I don't think one can even define an old school technique, other than the fact that greyscale "shading" wasn't used. I assume this was because it couldn't be reproduced by printers. In some cases, the artists used those pre-printed comic book pixels to get a grey shade (Otus is the only one I can think of, but it was done). But I don't see any definable "technique" being used across the board. As to the no-shading look, I think many of us who were raised during the period of time when childrens' books were done the same way (again, the printing technology)had the reaction that the D&D art using those limitations evoked stories and thus a fantasy feel. That's definitely based on living at a particular time, but it's much more than nostalgia - it's linked not to our age but to the "hardwiring" for fantasy as it exists in one generation.
    I think there's been a lot of mention of how the content and method of old school art is radically different from what's being done now. Backgrounds were much more important, etc. So I won't go into that here, even though I think it's by far the more important distinction.

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  13. I agree that subject matter is the main distinction between "old school" and modern D&D art. The main dividing line, I think, is that old school art often attempted to depict a world going on outside of the player characters, whereas modern D&D art tends to concentrate on them and the monsters they are facing.

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  14. I think at this point, I would like James to write a post explaining what he *does* want out of game book art, preferably with examples of current good practice. I certainly accept it is possible to do a nice old school product without using the old look (although I personally like it a lot), but it would be more useful to have James's perspective on these possibilities.

    Melan

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  15. The flavor of Goodman Games' products seems to reproduce, to a degree, the old school feel of the D&D modules from the 80s while at the same time incorporating a more modern design aesthetic. This is particularly true of the artwork, which harkens more to something you'd see in D&D 3E products than old TSR products.

    The funny thing is that I think Goodman's DCC line are among the worst examples of aping the past that I've seen in recent years. From the faux early 80s TSR trade dress to the blueprint maps to generally cartoonish interior art, the DCCs often look more like parodies than homages. There are exceptions, of course, but not many.

    Content-wise, I'm not very keen on the DCCs either. There are some gems among them, certainly, but the line is much too reductionist in its interpretation of "old school" as "combat heavy." Many of the modules are likewise plot heavy and too reliant on game mechanics for solving problems rather than player ingenuity.

    There are exceptions to my criticisms among the DCCs -- the series is vast, after all. However, to me, most of the line comes across as 3e-style adventures in disguise rather than as adventures in the old style written decades after the fact.

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  16. So I won't go into that here, even though I think it's by far the more important distinction.

    Actually, Matt, I wish you would go there, because I think you've already gone farther than many defending old school art than almost anyone I've read. I'm still sorting out my own feelings on the issue and would like additional insights and perspectives. As I mentioned in my review of Monsters of Myth, I am coming around from generally negative reaction to neo-old school art, but I could still do with some additional, well-conceived nudges in that direction.

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  17. The main dividing line, I think, is that old school art often attempted to depict a world going on outside of the player characters, whereas modern D&D art tends to concentrate on them and the monsters they are facing.

    Quite true. Modern gaming art is much more "narcissistic," so to speak, than older gaming art.

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  18. I think at this point, I would like James to write a post explaining what he *does* want out of game book art, preferably with examples of current good practice.

    I do. Part of the reason I haven't is that I'm still grappling in my own mind with just what I want, because I'm still not entirely sure. I know that I like a great many older gaming artists' work. I also know that almost every example of contemporary art that attempts to evoke the old school style falls flat with me, looking more like parody to my eyes. Thus my dilemma.

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  19. There are exceptions to my criticisms among the DCCs -- the series is vast, after all. However, to me, most of the line comes across as 3e-style adventures in disguise rather than as adventures in the old style written decades after the fact.

    Hum. Perhaps my limited experience with them was not an accurate sample. I'll have to look at a few more when I next visit my FLGS.

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  20. Please don't get the wrong impression: I don't think the DCC series is terrible. I'm actually fond of several of them. Rather, I don't think they're really old school in the way the term is usually meant round here. They are, at root, 3e adventures that have been dressed up as old school adventures. They're excellent for what they are, but I find them lacking as examples of the best "neo-old school" adventures could be.

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