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.