Thursday, December 10, 2009

REVIEW: The Grinding Gear

Gary Gygax's Tomb of Horrors is a module that, more than 30 years after its initial release, still manages to inspire heated debates about "fairness" and the role player, as opposed to character, skill ought to play in dungeon design. I think it's safe to say that, in the wider gaming world today, most gamers would probably consider Tomb of Horrors a "screw job" rather than a challenge to their playing ability. Indeed, the notion of "good play" outside the confines of "playing in-character" isn't well regarded anymore, which is why the fabled "deathtrap dungeon" is a term of opprobrium rather than approbation nowadays.

Never one to care much for fashionability, James Raggi offers up The Grinding Gear, a dungeon adventure that could well be called "Tomb of Horrors Jr." I mean this positively, for what Raggi has done in this adventure is to take the broad premise of Tomb -- a difficult trap-heavy locale mostly devoid of monsters -- and bring it down a few notches, both in terms of lethality and concept, so as to make it more accessible and less off-putting to gamers for whom Gygax's masterpiece is Exhibit A for all that's wrong with old school dungeon design.

Physically, this is by far and away the most impressive of Raggi's releases to date. Like all previous releases, it comes in a digest-sized format, its 16-pages of densely packed text clearly written and without any glaring editorial errors. Artwork by Laura Jalo is sparse -- only one interior black and white illustration, plus a color and B&W piece on the covers -- but nevertheless succeeds in enhancing the look of the module. The Grinding Gear includes three, double-sided, removable cardstock covers featuring maps by Ramsey Dow, including one for use by players. Having just sent The Cursed Chateau off to be printed, I have to admit I'm more than a little jealous at what Raggi has achieved here in terms of physical quality. It's an amazing piece of work, purely as an artifact, and represents a good example of how to produce a modern old school product that doesn't ape TSR's house style circa 1978.

Because of the importance placed on player skill in old school adventures, many have a kind of "funhouse" feel to them, which is to say, they often lack a good rationale for the existence of their puzzles, tricks, and traps, instead relying simply on how much fun it is to think your way through a room with a giant chessboard on its floor to make up for its implausibility. This feel isn't helped by the fact that most of the earliest published D&D modules were designed for tournament play, where concerns about building an immersive, naturalistic setting were a distant second to creating an environment that adequately tested the skill of its participants.

The Grinding Gear provides an explanation for its dungeon's tricks and traps, but I have to admit it felt a little weak, if not outright meta-game-y (is that a word?). For those who don't like spoilers, even of a minor sort, please stop reading now. The dungeon is a tomb constructed by a vengeful engineer-turned-innkeeper with a cruel sense of humor, who hoped that it might lure foolish adventurers to their doom within its walls. He both loathed and respected adventurers, whom he saw regularly in his place of business -- loathed for their venality and foolishness and respected for their daring and cleverness. It didn't help matters that his daughter ran off with an adventurer and died while on a dungeon-delving expedition with him. So, the engineer poured all his inventiveness and hatred into a dungeon of his own, designed to kill as many adventurers as possible and to reward those few who proved themselves up to the challenge.

Premise aside, the actual dungeon itself is quite well done, a low-level homage to Tomb of Horrors that, while definitely deadly, is not nearly as arbitrary as its "big brother." Most -- though not all -- of the dungeon's challenges kill only the unwary rather than the merely unlucky. To my mind, that's one of Raggi's best design decisions. The Grinding Gear rewards perspicacious and intelligent players, who don't act rashly and take their time to puzzle things out. Consequently, this is a module which, despite its comparative shortness, might take some time to finish, as players would be wise to take their time and carefully consider all options before proceeding deeper into its chambers. Rewards are commensurate with the dangers and characters who survive will find themselves more than adequately enriched for their efforts.

The Grinding Gear has a very different feel than previous adventures by Raggi. Gone is the brooding, weird tale vibe of Death Frost Doom or the lurking fears of No Dignity in Death. Replacing them is a strangely whimsical, almost light feel, which is admittedly odd in an adventure that features a "killer dungeon." This is clearly Raggi's most traditional module to date and that might come as a surprise to those expecting more of the same moody style we've seen previously. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing -- variety is very important when it comes to adventure design -- but it's a departure from the familiar and that can often lead to mixed feelings among fans of the originals.

I like The Grinding Gear and think it solidifies James Raggi's position as one of the most interesting and daring writers of old school material around today. At the same time, I'm not sure I have any immediate interest in running the module. I will likely loot it for ideas to use in my campaign -- there are many good ideas herein -- but I don't see it as a "must-play" as I did with Death Frost Doom. This is purely an idiosyncrasy on my part rather than a criticism of the module itself. I bring it up only because I want to be clear that The Grinding Gear is quite different from its predecessors. It is, however, very well-done and ought to be read, if not played, by all referees with an interest in applying the Old Ways to their current campaigns.

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a low-level trap-filled dungeon.
Don't Buy This If: You don't like puzzles, tricks, and traps to be the major challenges of a dungeon.

18 comments:

  1. Wow. You dont ussualy give scores as high as these. 9/10 and 8/10! It seems that you consider it a really good module.

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  2. Good post. Also good to hear the term "screwjob" being used for something else other than what Vince McMahon did to Bret "Hitman" Hart in the 90's.

    Actually, I think it is a damn great term for killer trap dungeons.

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  3. @Valandil: Yeah, he does like Jim's work. These are the products James has rated at 80% since he instituted his new three-part rating system this year:

    Death Frost Doom (24/30) 80%
    Presentation: 8 out of 10
    Creativity: 10 out of 10
    Utility: 6 out of 10

    No Dignity in Death: The Three Brides (24/30) 80%
    Presentation: 9 out of 10
    Creativity: 9 out of 10
    Utility: 6 out of 10

    The Grinding Gear (24/30) 80%
    Presentation: 9 out of 10
    Creativity: 8 out of 10
    Utility: 7 out of 10

    The People of the Pit (24/30) 80%
    Presentation: 8 out of 10
    Creativity: 9 out of 10
    Utility: 7 out of 10

    El Raja Key's Arcane Treasury (24/30) 80%
    Presentation: 7 out of 10
    Creativity: 9 out of 10
    Utility: 8 out of 10

    After studying the works in question, I have to agree they do all have the goods. Typical though of James's approach to reviewing, these still aren't perfect scores; he leaves room for improvement.

    The only product to score higher under the new system is this one:

    Old School Encounters Reference (28/30) 93.3%
    Presentation: 8 out of 10
    Creativity: 10 out of 10
    Utility: 10 out of 10

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  4. Jesus, we wrote almost exactly the same review--right down to the final paragraph injunction that we probably won't be running it but WILL be looting it for ideas.

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  5. Something that I've been wondering about with games like this is what you did if you were playing an idiot.

    By which I mean, some luckless bastard with a 6 intelligence, and a 5 wisdom...far from the worst scores that I've rolled, as I remember...would pretty much be doomed, if you played him according to his stats. Or did you not worry about your PCs mental capabilities matching his actual stats?

    I started with the boxed set, with the world's softest plastic dice, in 1980ish, for the record. At the age of 11 or 12, I was more concerned with accumulating treasure and/or kills than anything else.... Roleplaying, as I now enjoy it, had little to do with how we played in those days.

    (In many ways, as with science fiction, the golden age of roleplaying is indeed 12.)

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  6. "I like The Grinding Gear and think it solidifies James Raggi's position as one of the most interesting and daring writers of old school material around today."

    I'd like to offer a correction to this. James is one of the most interesting and daring writers *period*, no matter what school of gaming you like.

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  7. Fact question: is this for 1-3 level characters?

    Comment on "playing in character when you rolled a low Intelligence.":

    As my mother, a school teacher likes to say, everyone has peaks and valleys. So maybe you can barely speak common-- nevertheless, every once in a while you get these "insights"-- perhaps lent to you by an unseen prescence of (relative) genius that turn out to be, well, relative genius. . .

    And then you compensate by showing your character's stupidity when there's a need for harmless comic relief.

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  8. One OSR metaphor is that when you play a character less intelligent than you are, you are acting as that poor fool's guardian angel, helping them stumble past the traps and accidentally do the right thing. God looks after children and fools, and players look after stupid or foolish PCs.

    Playing an idiot as an idiot, dumbing down your own intelligence to try to do the stupid thing you think your PC would do is fun for a while, and at times, but it isn't fun forever.

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  9. Question for those of you who have the adventure: I am terrible at designing traps in dungeons; are the traps in this adventure easily portable to other dungeons, or are they really tied in to the overall setting and concept? I'm always looking for good sources of traps, and it sounds like this may fill that role, but I'm not sure.

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  10. "Fact question: is this for 1-3 level characters?"

    The module text says that it is for characters of levels 1 to 4. :)

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  11. you know yu just made be purchase the pdf.... damn you!

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  12. Aaron--
    most of the traps are portable. If you want nothing but portable traps i recommend Raggi's Green Devil Face 2 and 3

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  13. > what you did if you were playing an idiot.

    You listen to and follow the lead of your smarter party members. Just as the strong fighterly types typically take point on melee. The smarter wizards, rogues, etc. are brought to bear when their abilities (int/wis/dex) are needed.

    Otherwise you die and rightly so.

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  14. You listen to and follow the lead of your smarter party members. Just as the strong fighterly types typically take point on melee. The smarter wizards, rogues, etc. are brought to bear when their abilities (int/wis/dex) are needed.

    Otherwise you die and rightly so.


    Agreed, I think that's how it's played best.

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  15. re playing int scores "different from your own:" I propose that it's (a) unresolvable - how would you play a character with higher intelligence or wisdom than yourself (a situation I've been in more than once)? Depend on the collective intelligence of your group? If so, are you needed? - and (b) a bit of a non-issue because, per Gardner, we still lack any good general model of intelligence (IQ tests are very far from complete or descriptive).
    I'm also concerned first with fun rather than simulation of abstract unknowables, and if the one player at the table has a brilliant solution to the current challenge but can't share it, I say fun is reduced. In my own games I allow the score to model die-roll situations but I do not require players to model int or wis scores in their behaviour, although they're welcome to if they wish, for comic effect.

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  16. I propose that if the player character has a low INT score, DM will reveal less information to the player to make a decision, so a low INT PC will have to guess more. INT check is required to hide something successfully, to find something hidden, to spot an ambush, to read difficult text, low INT character will have less skills. Low INT character will be less likely to figure out if someone is trying to lie to them or manipulate them. What I really HATE is players playing their character to their weakness - i.e. playing dumb.

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  17. In my Sunday game, one player has a low INT character. He handles it by often suggesting obviously bad ideas, with the idea that the other players pick up on the idea that as a player he thinks they should do the opposite.

    My next adventure features some bits where information is given only to certain combinations of race/class/INT. "Dwarfs with 12 or greater INT, or Clerics with 15 or greater INT, or anyone with 17 or greater INT can decipher..." That sort of thing.

    And thanks for the kind words, everybody. :)

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  18. What Zak said, Aaron. Go get Green Devil Face!

    (Yeah, some of mine stuff is in there, so what? :)

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