Thursday, June 4, 2009

REVIEW: Obregon's Dishonor

Obregon's Dishonor is the first -- and, so far, only -- support product for Geoffrey McKinney's Supplement V: Carcosa, published last fall amidst a great deal of controversy in the old school community. I am, however, happy to report that this 36-page digest-sized adventure module is not similarly controversial, containing little that should offend the sensibilities of anyone who appreciates the tropes of swords-and-sorcery literature. Indeed, author Cameron DuBeers has done such a thoroughly good job of presenting the Carcosa setting as a quirky, if dark, pulp fantasy setting that I once again can't help but think the original product would have been benefited from a similar approach. Be that as it may, I can say without hesitation that Obregon's Dishonor is a largely unobjectionable scenario whose strengths highlight the possibilities inherent in the Carcosa concept and whose weaknesses have nothing whatsoever to do with any moral questions it raises.

Of the module's 36 pages, approximately 20 contain adventure text, not including a two-page, removable map. The remaining pages are given over to an index, an author's introduction, pregenerated PCs, a new NPC class (the witch), new monsters, and other similar content. The text is presented in a straightforward fashion, using a single column. Unlike Carcosa itself, there wasn't much of an attempt to imitate the style of OD&D supplements, which leaves the book feeling "flat" in my estimation, as its layout is neither interesting in its own right nor as a recreation of the 1970s. The book contains three pieces of art by Andy Taylor, one of which is the cover illustration. I have to admit I wasn't especially fond of the cover, which, like the layout, felt flat, whereas the two interior pieces are quite nice and do a good job of evoking the alien character of Carcosa -- something I think the setting desperately needs. The cartography is functional but not especially inspiring, reminding me a bit of the kinds of maps I remember seeing in old Judges Guild products, so take that as you will.

Obregon's Dishonor begins in a Green Man mining town, where the characters make the acquaintance of a Purple cyborg named Bothess, who wishes to employ the characters for a mission of utmost importance to her. She's the last surviving member of a mercenary company led by a Lawful Red Man sorcerer named Obregon. Obregon was a rare individual whose strength of will enabled him to use sorcery not for self-aggrandizement but to do battle against the Great Old Ones. Though honorable, Obregon was also naive, training an Orange Man named Darsiaas in sorcery without recognizing that his apprentice lacked his strength of will. Once he realized his error, Obregon sought to destroy Darsiaas so as to right his past misdeed. In trying to do so, Obregon succeeded in stopping the summoning of a foul being -- the Shambler of the Endless Night -- but at the cost of his own life and soul. Bothess wishes to free Obregon's soul from its eternal torment by enacting a ritual and asks the PCs to join her in doing so.

What follows is a quest to find the item necessary to enact the ritual and free Obregon's soul, with the bulk of the initial action taking place in an ancient Jale Man stronghold/monastery, inhabited by a variety of creatures and hazards, as well as much treasure. Once the PCs have the item, they can then help Bothess to perform the ritual and free Obregon's soul. It's here that the adventure takes a twist, as things the PCs had been led to believe to be true turn out not to be, precipitating a difficult choice on their parts. The players will be forced to choose between several unpalatable options, none of which is "right" and any one of which will result in consequences they may not find acceptable. In this respect, I think Obregon's Dishonor does a good job in presenting the harshness of Carcosa without reveling in nihilism. One of my complaints about the original product was its bleakness. This adventure is not bleak, but it does show that heroism in a world ruled by the Great Old Ones and their mortal minions demands sacrifices from all concerned. There are no unblemished happy endings.

Obregon's Dishonor is definitely not for everyone. Even without the specific content of the unexpurgated Carcosa that offended so many people, it's not a family-friendly product. I said earlier that it contains little that would offend those who appreciate swords-and-sorcery literature and that's true. It does, however, contain a fair bit of sexual imagery, some of it in my opinion prurient (and puerile), even by the standards of the genre. I was often reminded of Heavy Metal comics from the 1970s, which, again, may or may not be a good thing, but it's worth bearing in mind.

As an adventure, Obregon's Dishonor does an excellent job of demonstrating the possibilities of the dark science fantasy setting of Carcosa. Whereas the original supplement suffered, I think, for providing little direction as to how one might use its material, this adventure has no such problem. It's a terrific model for referees and players alike, showing one possible way to interpret Carcosa and make it the locale for exciting adventures.

That's not to say there are no problems, because there are, chiefly the prominent role played by Bothess. Aside from her highly sexualized portrayal (which, I grant, is a deliberate choice by the author rather than a flaw per se), she's a bit too vital to the adventure's action. She provides lots of exposition and backstory to the player characters and, while provisions are made in the text for her possible demise, it seemed clear to me that her death would likely present problems in using the module as written. In truth, I think Obregon's Dishonor would have benefited greatly from the removal of Bothess and the rewriting of the module to give the PCs a less overt segue into its events.

Despite it all, there's a lot to like here. Cameron DuBeers does a good job of presenting a playable version of Carcosa, one that feels both less bleak and more in line with "traditional" swords-and-sorcery than did the original product. The module's a bit rough around the edges in places, but the strength of its ideas shine through. I'd love to see the further development of this interpretation of Carcosa. With a bit more spit and polish, I think we have the makings of something remarkable here -- but we're not there quite yet.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity:
7 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If:
You'd like to see an interpretation of how to use Carcosa as a swords-and-sorcery setting
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in Carcosa or are easily offended by sexual imagery

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review, James. Your input will be valuable in my follow-up work to this module; two more adventures set in or around Jaftgong (the town in Obregon's Dishonor).

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  2. @James,

    Thank you for the additional depth of examination you put into reviewing the product.

    @Cameron: Congratulations. :)

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  3. not to be too flippant but...
    wouldn't a spoiler alert be in order on this one?

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  4. Is the art and sexual content here really more "severe" than what's common in old-school gaming fanzines these days (to include the ones you publish in)? I seem to recall my issues of Fight On! and Knockspell having some illos that even TSR in the 70s wouldn't considered. The incubus sporting an erection is definitely like nothing I'd ever seen before in a gaming book. :)

    I'm glad I'm not a prude.

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  5. I'm glad I'm not a prude.



    It's not a question of prudery; it's a question of "dramatic" necessity. In my opinion, much of the sexual content of this module was unnecessary and prurient. Fan of S&S literature that I am, I don't shy away from blood or sex when it serves a purpose in the story. I simply feel that much of the content here served no purpose other than to further glamorize a "pet NPC" whose presence is one of its weakest parts.

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  6. James makes a good point, and one that I'm taking to heart while writing the sequels. I was trying to capture the mood of "Swords & Sorcery" works of fiction and perhaps I went a bit overboard. I'll have to think on this.

    The "pet" NPC is a more pressing issue. His comments regarding Bothess and her involvement in the storyline (and thus, the PCs) are right on the money. I'll definitely have to keep that in mind in future endeavors.

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  7. Although sexuality is a touchy subject in RPGs and authors/publishers should aim to present such topics in a tasteful and appropriate manner, I am in favor of products with "prurient Heavy Metal magazine" vibes.

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