Friday, February 27, 2009

REVIEW: The Stalk

Of all the old school gaming companies around these days, Rob Kuntz's Pied Piper Publishing has probably come the closest to adopting the kind of approach that I would have liked to have seen with Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg. Kuntz clearly understands that gamers interested in his products don't want updated or "re-imagined" versions of the dungeons he ran during his time as the co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign; they want the real deal, preferably with lots of reminscences and commentary about "the good ol' days." Throwing in some nifty gaming "artifacts," like reproductions of the original maps certainly couldn't hurt. This is exactly the approach PPP adopted with last year's The Original Bottle City, which I reviewed favorably last April.

Naturally, when PPP announced the release of three new products, I was quick to order them. I am quite happy to say that they all arrived promptly and intact. Whatever problems PPP had with fulfilling orders in the past seem to have been resolved and I have no complaints on this score. I must, however, take issue with the physical quality and presentation of the product I'm reviewing today, The Stalk. Like its predecessor, The Living Room (which I also reviewed), The Stalk isn't really a book; it's a collection of what look to be laser-printed pages, without any binding whatsoever. There are nine pages of text, of which one is an introduction by Kuntz and the last page is a copy of the Open Game License. That leaves only 7 pages dedicated to the "dungeon" itself, including some background and tips for the referee -- a very meager offering. There are four additional loose pages in this product: a modern map, a reproduction of the original map, and a two-page reproduction of Kuntz's original handwritten notes. There is also a cover sheet, with some attractive art by Eric Bergeron. At $11.95, this is a rather pricey product, but then it is almost certainly geared toward collectors and oddballs like myself interested in the history of the hobby rather than a wider audience.

The Stalk is actually an outdoor encounter area: a gigantic plant stalk whose many tendrils reach high into the sky and are the lairs of a variety of similarly mammoth insects, arachnids, and other bugs. The map for the encounter reminds me of the map for the Demonweb, with lots of overlapping "passages" that connect the lairs of its inhabitants. In his introduction, Kuntz explains that the Stalk was an attempt to move the dungeon to the outdoors, so to speak, which makes a great deal of sense, given the inchoate nature of wilderness adventuring at the time. The Stalk was also an experiment in "three-dimensional dungeoneering," since the environment allowed movement vertically as well as horizontally, a fact Kuntz notes as something he used to his advantage, when giant bugs swooped or dropped down on the party.

Undoubtedly, the Stalk would have been a tough slog back in the day, even at levels 9-12, which is the recommended range for this module. The basic premise of the adventure is that the characters, having climbed up the Stalk will become trapped as a result of an old curse that prevents escape (the reasons for which are explained in a brief bit of background). The characters must therefore explore the Stalk to find a means to leave it, all the while contending with its monstrous denizens, many of which are quite tough. Players used to the standard "clean up crew" dungeon vermin might be in for a nasty surprise when they encounter the creatures that call the Stalk home.

The Stalk is basically a self-contained, one-shot encounter, probably playable in a single evening. That's not a bad thing by any means, both because it's a rejoinder to the notion that all adventures need to have a "meaning" beyond themselves and as a reminder that, even in the old days, there was more to do than just plumb the depths of the local megadungeon over and over again. The Stalk offers up a few new magic items, albeit of limited appeal outside the encounter area itself. But the real appeal of this product is Kuntz's commentary, of which I wish there were more, and the reproductions of the original maps and notes. It seems clear to me that Kuntz has a lot to say and it's a pity that he didn't avail himself of the opportunity to do so here. I think more reminiscences and commentary would have gone a long way toward overcoming my qualms about The Stalk, which is a good, if amateurish, product and one whose contents and presentation seem like a step backward after the near-perfection of The Original Bottle City. While I don't regret buying it, I am mildly disappointed that it didn't build on the success of that product and give us something of wider and more lasting interest.

Final Score: 3 out of 5 polearms

5 comments:

  1. The recently released El Raja Key Arcane Treasury is very nicely bound in the same style as Bottle City, Tower of Blood, and Cairn of the Skeleton King.

    Given this, I've very much hoping that Daemonic & Arcane and The Stalk will be the last generation of unbound PPP products.

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  2. I wish it had been booklet-printed - probably cost around the same, but much easier to use. I'd comb-bind it, but I am a bit uncomfortable about ounching holes in the map...

    Interesting product, though - it is very much the epitome of a "lair". I still can't figure out the map, and I suppose it wouldn't be easy to run this thing since the PCs would see their surroundings.

    Still,
    1) it is very interesting (giant ladybugs! :D)
    2) if we discount the tremendous production delay, once it was announced, it actually shipped super-fast, so PPP may have indeed cleaned up its act!

    I would like to read your thoughts on the other two; I have browsed through them, and been favourably impressed by at least Daemonic & Arcane (Arcane Treasury requires more study to pass a judgement on, it is a bit "2e" to me, but definitely imaginative).

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  3. Is it unreasonable of me to suggest playing it through for a review? I'd love to know if its a good play and I'm sure there are others out there that would too... is it fun? Do the ideas on paper work in practice?

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  4. Is it unreasonable of me to suggest playing it through for a review?

    Not at all. Unfortunately, I'm not the one to do that at this time, as I don't have any PCs in my campaign who are of high enough level for The Stalk and I'm not a fan of running adventures disconnected from a campaign. That said, I'll likely incorporate bits of this module into Dwimmermount eventually and I'll certainly report on that, when the time comes, but it'll be some months in the future before I reach that point.

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  5. Great stuff. The module sounds like quite a good one from the review and I look forward to hearing about how it plays out in practice; I might even pick it up if its as much fun as I suspect it might be

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