Monday, October 1, 2012

REVIEW: The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time

I find it interesting how widespread the term "adventure module" (or just "module") is among gamers to describe a pre-written scenario for a roleplaying game. I suppose it's yet more evidence of the long shadow cast by Dungeons & Dragons. I have no idea if the term predates its use by TSR which is how the company described its own published adventures, but it was from these that I first encountered it.

Whatever else it does, "module" brings with it the unspoken assumption of interchangeability -- something you can pick up and drop into your existing campaign with ease. Modules were for when a referee needed something with which to occupy the players and he hadn't had either the time or inspiration (or both) to come up with something on his own. Because modules were self-contained, one generally assumed that using one is simple and consequence-free.

Though comparatively few RPG companies describe their adventures as "modules" anymore -- does even Dungeons & Dragons do so in 2012? -- the term still colors how many gamers think of pre-written adventures. For them, an adventure should be straightforward and cause few, if any, lasting problems for the campaign into which they are dropped. These expectations may explain why James Raggi's The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time (hereafter Monolith) is meeting with such strong reactions from many. While I completely understand these reactions, I also think they're a little unfair. Monolith most definitely isn't an adventure module in the traditional sense (though Raggi does in fact use the term). Dropping it into an existing campaign will have long-term consequences; any referee thinking of using Monolith needs to bear this in mind.

Let's talk briefly about the physical qualities of the adventure before getting into its contents. Monolith is a 48-page A5 (148 mm x 210 mm -- slightly smaller than 6" x 9"). The color cover, depicting the titular Monolith, and black and white interior illustrations are all by Aeron Alfrey and have a suitably "Lovecraftian" vibe (more on that later). The book uses a clean, two-column layout and is, in fact, very easy on the eyes. In fact, I'd say it's one of the more attractive Lamentations of the Flame Princess released to date (though the text of my copy was slightly blurred on a couple of pages). The text was written by James Raggi, with a small, two-page section, called "The Owls' Service," written by Kenneth Hite. Monolith is available either as a PDF for 4.80€ (about $6 US) or as a PDF + Printed Book bundle for 12€ (about $15.50 US).

Like it or not, Raggi's adventures have a strong authorial voice. This is particularly true of Monolith, which he describes in his "Author's Notes" section as his "homage to Howard Phillips Lovecraft." He further elaborates that his goal was to make
a Lovecraftian adventure without leaning on the usual trappings of Lovecraft's mythos ... No Cthulhu, no Necronomicon, none of it. Just take the concepts these things were vehicles for communicating, and use those.
With that in mind, he presents "a teleporting, dimension-hopping, time traveling phenomenon" that "can be placed anywhere in any campaign without the need to be adjusted to fit a specific flavor." This phenomenon is the Monolith and the valley that surrounds it. Their mere presence warps reality, creating distortions that change Nature in various ways. Likewise, the valley of the Monolith is home to several unique encounters that reflect the weirdness of the place. All of these distortions and encounters are detailed at some length (16 pages).

Of course, the adventure's main attraction is the Monolith itself, which the characters may enter and explore. Once entered, the laws of reality function differently -- such as the fact that it's bigger on the inside than on the outside -- and the characters must spend some time figuring out exactly what does and does not work while inside. Raggi provides extensive details on how to run the Monolith, complete with examples. This is helpful, as the Monolith is a structure of a very bizarre sort and it's not just the player character who'll wonder just how it functions. There are also a number of specific locations within the Monolith, in addition to a single "encounter."

I hope I can be forgiven for being vague on the precise details of what's in the Monolith and how this eldritch structure operates. Much of the enjoyment of this adventure comes from discovering these things for oneself. What I will say is that, as presented, the Monolith is a very open-ended environment, in that the players have a create deal of freedom in deciding where their characters go and what they can do. Of course, that freedom comes at a price and a big part of the adventure's "Lovecraftian" tone comes from the players' grappling with whether or not they're willing to pay that price or if they can live with the consequences of not doing so.

I think it's on precisely this point where opinion will be divided regarding The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time. Unlike most adventure modules from the past, playing this one will forever change a campaign. More precisely, it will forever change the characters in the campaign. Raggi himself brings this up in his "Author's Notes," where he says of the characters will eventually "... realize they cannot win. They are doomed, and were doomed from the moment they got involved." No character who enters the Monolith will escape unscathed and at least one won't escape at all (unless he and his companions are willing to allow even worse consequences to follow).

In this respect, Monolith is a bit like Death Frost Doom turned up to 11. In both, there are dire consequences from the moment the player characters walked onto the scene. The difference, I think, lies in the fact that the consequences in Death Frost Doom are more impersonal -- unleashing a zombie plague on the world -- whereas those in Monolith directly affect the sanity and well-being of the characters themselves, with any effects on the wider world being sub-consequences of that. This is an adventure that will wreck characters, a fact made all the worse because some aspects of Monolith are, once entered into, inexorable. They simply cannot be avoided unless the player characters decide not to participate in the adventure at all.

That's why, I think, the only way to use this adventure without generating a great deal of acrimony and unhappiness is as a location within a sandbox-style campaign. In this scenario, the Monolith is some weird thing placed on the referee's map that the PCs might come across as they explore the world and one that they might, like a dragon's lair or a powerful magic-user's tower, choose to avoid entirely out of fear of the consequences. Simply throwing it at the players -- "Here's what we're going to play today ..." -- is unfair and cruel, because the horror of Monolith lies not merely in the nature and purpose of the titular structure but that, if the characters' curiosity gets the better of them, they truly will have come across a Thing Man Was Not Meant to Know and paid the price for it. Without that initial choice, the rest is meaningless.

I like The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time and think it's largely successful in its aims of presenting a Lovecraftian scenario without the overt trapping of Lovecraft's mythos. However, I also think that it's a "nuclear option" adventure that the referee ought not to use lightly and that, if used, has the potential to change things forever.

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 2 out of 10

Buy This If: You're interested in introducing Lovecraftian themes into your campaign and are willing to accept the far-reaching consequences to the player characters and campaign in doing so.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in Lovecraftian themes or have no interest in potentially wrecking one or more player characters to introduce them into the campaign.

9 comments:

  1. Nicholas BergquistOctober 1, 2012 at 9:38 PM

    Sounds like the sort of module you run on an off-night; tell everyone to show up with pregens of appropriate level and spring it on them. One of the advantages of Call of Cthulhu is everyone has an idea of what to expect, at least insofar as character fragility is concerned; throwing D&D (or LotFP) characters into a CoC module is a bit cruel and unusual....well....maybe not so much for LotFP, I suppose...

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  2. I think that's exactly right. That's not a flaw by any means, but I do think it severely limits the utility of the adventure. It also probably explains why so many people have problems with the adventure.

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  3. I ran this adventure and I loved how I managed to convey an experience of an episode of a Twilight Zone like show, or a (not really)"Science Fiction" story about assumptions of reality becoming unhinged, or even a David Lynch-esque movie.


    I dig it!

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  4. The way it's described makes it sound almost like a 'Dragonlance'-style story arc with no flexibility in the end, since the characters are "doomed from they moment they got involved". It may have flexibility for a while, but if much of it can't be avoided at all, it's at least a cousin to predefined story-arcs.

    Not sure if it's anything I'd spring on my group without some heavy modifications or a one-shot with pregens...which might lessen the sense of loss since it's being run with disposable characters. Still might read it though, Raggi's got a great imagination.

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  5. I think I must have read a different HPL than other people. He really never screwed over his characters unfairly in his stories. There was always a choice for them. That seems to be missing in a lot of CoC scenarios (and LotFP from what I've read).

    Dreams in the Witch House for instance. The protagonist was slowly becoming under the spell of Keziah Mason, but in the end, he decided to defy her. Or in The Horror at Red Hook, the guy made a bargain with Lilith but ultimately foiled her plans (temporarily).

    Even in things where the protagonist has a doomed heritage, like the Innsmouth guy or Arthur Jermyn, they made a choice to either kill themselves or embrace their own nature.

    Even in The Color of Space or The Whisperer in the Darkness, the doomed people choose to stay even though they can see warning signs over and over and over. The Mi-Go in particular were incredibly patient

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  6. As long as you foreshadow it sufficiently it might be a fun thing to add to the campaign.

    And by foreshadow mention that nobody who has investigated the old monolith on the hill has ever returned. "No. Seriously. Nobody has ever come back. You'd have to be barking mad to go there. No, I'm not joking. You don't want to go there. Really! Sir Kenneth of Broadmoor took a party in three years ago. They never came out. It's an absolute death-trap."

    And then count the players who can't resist the bright and shiny angler fish lure... It's a mistake I guarantee they will only make once.

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  7. Personally, I really appreciated Monolith. The OSR shines brightest when it provides the hobbyist community with new possibilities: the one page format, drop-dice tables, geomorphs (vertical as well as horizontal), new artists, etc. There's a certain gutsy quality to things like Stonehell, Vornheim, dungeon generators, Delta's mass combat rules...a certain creative swagger that I really like after 30+ years of more standard (and let's face it, tired and repetitive) DnD tropes.

    Me, I can't help but admire what Raggi set out to do in Monolith. This is not a standard "adventure" with keyed rooms and giants or goblins or potions or anti-gravity rooms. First off, there's no map. Secondly, the interaction between players and the created environment is bidirectional. Players / characters in this "adventure" aren't operating in a static environment that awaits and then reacts to their choices in a limited and discrete manner. Rather, the environment itself is almost a character in its own right, and one that is also seeking to act on the player characters. This is very different than a "rail road," and hats off to Raggi for seeing if he could emulate a Lovecraftian / Twilight Zone atmosphere in a DnD-type framework. I think that's kind of cool.

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  8. Glad to see an uptick in your reviews, James. They are some of the more
    thoughtful in the blogosphere, and they are such a positive resource
    for the OSR community.

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  9. On the word "module" -- That word faded away during my time as managing editor. One of my goals was to make the language of D&D more direct. I was a lot more strident in those days than I am now, and needless jargon bothered me. The D&D stylebook instructed editors to use the word adventure when they meant adventure.

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