Monday, September 13, 2010

REVIEW: Hammers of the God

Of all the products James Raggi has recently released, it's not an exaggeration to say that his adventure module, Hammers of the God, is by far my favorite. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that it's my favorite product he's ever released, eclipsing even the supremely excellent Death Frost Doom. In almost every way, Hammers of the God is a step up over Death Frost Doom, which had already set a very high standard for contemporary old school adventures, making this a very good adventure indeed.

Before getting into the meat of the module itself, let me first discuss its physical and esthetic qualities. The cover, by Dean Clayton, is moody and mysterious, setting just the right tone for this adventure. However, the cover is dark, which makes it difficult to read Lamentations of the Flame Princess logo, which I think should have been printed in white or even purple like the bottom half of the illustration. The interior black and white art, by Laura Jalo, is likewise superb, as it always is. My only complaint is that there is not more of it. Ramsey Dow's cartography is clean and, most of all, useful, which is the standard by which all maps should be judged. Raggi's dense text is presented in two columns, spread over 36 pages; it's well-written and edited and, best of all, evocative, imparting the adventure with feelings of melancholy and shame, two emotions one does not usually associate with fantasy roleplaying adventures, especially dungeon delving ones.

Hammers of the God is a location-based adventure intended for a party of characters between the levels of 3 and 5. The location in question is an ancient dwarven stronghold, long since abandoned, and reputed to be filled with great riches. There certainly is wealth to be found within its halls, including one of the hammers from which the module takes it title, but the most important thing to be found is knowledge. The ancient stronghold holds the key to many secrets of dwarven history, secrets so shameful that they are vehemently denied by those few dwarves who still know them -- secrets they would rather no one ever know.

It's here where I think Raggi is at his best. Other writers could very well have come up with a secret for the dwarves that was worth keeping hidden away from other races and even their own kinsmen for millennia, but such a secret would likely have been some Grand Guignol horror show that recast the dwarves as monsters. Raggi doesn't go that route. Instead, he creates a surprising secret, one that is simultaneously true to the default portrayal of dwarves in most fantasy RPG settings and yet recasts them in a way that makes it hard ever to view them in the same light again. It's a remarkable bit of writing that made me regret that my Dwimmermount campaign already has its own unique take on dwarves, one that isn't at all compatible with Raggi's vision. Fortunately, though, most other settings are and one of the greatest virtues of Hammers of the God is the way it could be used seamlessly with most fantasy settings, something that is decidedly not the case with many of Raggi's other adventures, good as they are.

The dwarven stronghold itself is well presented, filled with dangers and dread, as well as hiding oddities that eventually reveal much to those who make an effort to decipher them. Raggi builds slowly toward the revelations the dungeon conceals and this approach serves him well. He's taken great care to avoid a cheap "Aha!" moment that reveals all at once, going so far as to devote 14 of the modules 36 pages to cataloging and describing 100 books found within the stronghold that provide many clues to the dwarves' shameful past. And even these books, numerous though they are, don't paint the whole picture; to make sense of it all the PCs will need to explore the entire dungeon and then face that most difficult of all challenges: making sense of it all.

Hammers of the God is, like all James Raggi adventures, light on monsters to fight and heavy on mystery and mood. Just as Death Frost Doom evoked a sense of creeping dread in the fashion of a classic weird tale, this adventure almost achieves that elegaic quality I regularly claim is impossible with D&D (thereby proving, as some have suspected for years, that I have no idea what I'm talking about). I'm not quite sure he succeeds, but there's no question that Hammers of the God has a mournful quality to it that I found affecting and one that sets it apart from just about every adventure module I can think of. I've noted before that I think Raggi's true strength lies in adventure writing and Hammers of the God does nothing to change my feelings on this score. It's a top-notch adventure that deserves to be widely read and, more importantly, played.
Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 10 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for an emotionally powerful adventure that cleverly casts standard dwarf stereotypes on whole new light.
Don't Buy This If: You already have your own unique take on dwarves or aren't interested in adventures that are heavier on mood than on action.

19 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review James. It has made me aware of yet another great product (that I wouldn't have otherwise seen) and allowed me to add it to my collection.

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  2. "[Raggi] creates a surprising secret, one that is simultaneously true to the default portrayal of dwarves in most fantasy RPG settings and yet recasts them in a way that makes it hard ever to view them in the same light again."

    Awesome.

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  3. Ooh! Drat! I almost ordered this over the weekend and opted for an oop ebay score instead! Now I want it even more, of course. Next payday.

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  4. Like all of Raggi's adventures, this is a "generic" module that includes very few game stats at all, most of them being easily usable with any old school D&D game or one of its clones.

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  5. You just made another customer for Mr. Raggi. I've not bought any of his material yet; but, this looks like a great place to start.

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  6. James, your comments about the "secrets of the Dwarves" are really intriguing. I'm very tempted to buy this even though I'm not currently playing any old-school D&D type games (we're still finishing up a 10+ year 3.5 edition game).

    But, the way you wrote the review... I might just have to snap this up. The dwarves in my campaign also have a secret, but the difference is, they don't even know what it is. I'm not sure I have it quite figured out, either. I'm kind of hoping my players figure something out before I wrap up this campaign.

    Thanks again for doing these reviews - my local game store doesn't carry old OSR type products, so this is the only place I learn about them.

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  7. Ja...looks pretty darn good.
    : )

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  8. C'mon, what happened with Freya and the dwarves is no secret - much to her chagrin.

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  9. "Hammers of the God is, like all James Raggi adventures, light on monsters to fight and heavy on mystery and mood."

    Now that I think about it, it's interesting that he would even make his game a D&D variant instead of using the rules of, perhaps, Call of Cthulhu, as a basis.

    Then again, even if he is pounding nails with a screwdriver, he sure seems to be successful at it. :)

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  10. Actually, now that I think about it, a retro-cloned Stormbringer would be ideal for what Raggi likes to do.

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  11. The dwarves in my campaign also have a secret, but the difference is, they don't even know what it is.

    This would work well with Hammers of the God. The secret is such that it is entirely possible that the dwarves have gone to such lengths to hide it that no one remembers it, or even that it has been hidden.

    Indeed, there's a strong implication in the scenario that this is the case, and that the dungeon is the only place where this information can now be found.

    I'm inclined to agree that this is a better scenario than Death Frost Doom. Like the former adventure, this contains a "bomb", but unlike DFD it's not a physical one, and I appreciate the idea of a piece of information that can have as powerful and wide-ranging an effect as the events of DFD.

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  12. Intriguing. I really liked DFD and I have a special fondness for Dwarves (get your minds out of the gutter! :P ), so I may have to get this. I suspect it might work well with WFRP 1E, since I toss out most of the background material introduced starting with WFB 4, which leaves the origins of the Dwarves largely undefined in that setting.

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  13. FWIW, it's completely playable with any D&D, up to and including 4e. As is usual for Raggi's adventures, the theme and mood is way more important than the stats.

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  14. Just wanted to thank you for the review James, but not because of the scenario. Turns out I used to work with Dean Clayton, the artist, many years ago. We hadn't been in contact for a very long time, and thanks to your link throroughness, I found his contact details.
    So thanks for hooking up two old friends, cheers!

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  15. My copy of Hammers turned up... And I'm a tad disappointed. It may be a nice piece of writing but DFD is a much better scenario. DFD simply drips with equal quantities of dread and excitement; HotG on the other hand details the contents of 101 dwarf tomes that each take 2d4 hours to read (if your PC happens to read 'ancient dwarf').

    HotG may well have a nice dwarf secret to reveal but I suspect it's for the Referee's eyes only as it's unlikely the characters will have brought their reading glasses. If they did bring their specs and fancied a right good read, they'd most likely be upset to find themselves completely dead from any number of 'save or die' situations.

    I don't mind save of die traps but used too often they drive player behaviour...

    "Shall we open this door?"
    "Don't be daft, Ulfric turned his toes up at the last seemingly harmless door..."
    "Okay, how about this casket..?"
    "Perhaps we'd better just thumb through book 25; hasn't that got the cookie recipe in it?"

    Oh I know, I'm probably being a little unfair (after all I haven't played it yet) but I do think the author is taking himself a little bit too seriously in this one. At least DFD had Grover Cincinnati... Come back Grover, all is forgiven!

    I wouldn't normally trouble you all with a negative comment - just that I've read plenty of Mr. Raggi's, enjoyed them all greatly but found this to be the least of them - a stark contrast to the Grognardian who felt it was the best. Takes all sorts of course.

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  16. I never expected that anyone would read any of that while in the dungeon. It's an intentional break in the "beat" of the dungeoncrawl. You don't go back to town to rest, you go back to town to research.

    (wait until I release the adventure that requires a massive excavation expedition just to get in the front door. ;))

    As for the *Save or Die* traps, only Location #16 strikes me as being particularly nasty... well, that and #27 but the deal at 27 is almost the entire point of the whole thing.

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