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AD&D: Hellhounds and Hellknights

This Saturday's game wasn't meant to have eight players. Lee was meant to be running his Pathfinder game, which would have left me with a scant handful of player (and thus, heavy on the henchmen). However, Lee was ill, so I inherited his players, all of whom have played in my AD&D game at one time or another. Daniel also turned up, and Tim as well. Tim created a new character - an Assassin! - so both Tait and Tim were Assassining this evening.

I discovered I didn't have quite all my notes with me - I had the older dungeon levels, but not the newest versions of them. However, given where the group ended up, I had enough of the notes with me. I warned the group through Teresa (my NPC magic-user) that Knights of Hextor had been seen about with their hellhounds, and the group sort of resolved to find them. In a vague sort of way.

This probably would have given the group a definite goal if they could remember where the outpost of the Knights was. They couldn't. So, they decided to go down to where they were exploring last session (the notes for which were at my home). Preparing to make up some encounters, I looked on in bemusement as they went entirely the wrong way... and ended up in the outpost of the Knights anyway!

Go figure!

Hell hounds are scary (as Lee will tell you), as they get to breathe fire every round with an auto-hit attack (save for half). The big ones are doing 7 hp with their breath weapon. It doesn't sound like much, but it is massive with the lower hit points of AD&D. This time around, Josh was there with his cleric, and he prepared Resist FIre in anticipation. Josh did a really good job of choosing and casting his cleric spells, and a large part of the group's success was due to his presence.

The group? Here it is:

Josh: human cleric 4 (AC 2, hp 28)
Daniel: elf Fighter 3/Thief 3 (AC 6, hp 13)
Shane: human Cleric 1 (AC 2, hp 8)
Paul; half-orc Fighter 7 (AC -3, hp 52)
Tim: human Assassin 1 (AC 3, hp 7)
Ben: human Ranger 5 (AC -2, hp 42)
Brodie: human Fighter 3 (AC 1, hp 33)
Tait: human Assassin 4 (AC  4, hp 29)

Shane's magic-user took a day off; not because the group didn't want him (they probably did), but because he was researching find familiar. We'd dealt with that in the dinner break before the game started. Eventually it took him about 10,000 gold and 6 weeks to research the spell, so he wasn't available when the session started. And it means that - assuming the group remain in dungeon mode - his wizard won't be around for the next five weeks, either. Yes, I'm using a "1 real day=1 game day" for time spent not playing in the campaign, and now, with the wizards crafting and researching, it limits their participation greatly; instead, Shane was playing one of his henchmen.

Jesse just was absent, but his wizard will have a couple of weeks of downtime to "spend" when he gets back.

I'm allowing spear use from the second rank, so all of the group were involved in every combat. A discovery of a cache of jewelry allowed all the group to gain substantial XP from the session (about 2,000 or more), allowing the new players to gain levels and some of the older ones to do likewise. Most of the session was spent in the main Hextorian base in the Caverns of the Oracle, fighting the knights and their hell-hounds; a few little traps and tricks kept things interesting. The group did, in fact, try to negotiate with the Knights at times (especially when dressed in the robes of petitioners), but managed to make a mess of it, and things devolved into combat again.

The combats were actually pretty balanced and interesting. My standard Knight of Hextor used the following stats: AC 2, HD 3, hp 11, D 1-8. I added in both 4 HD and 7 HD hellhounds, Without the magic-users, the fighters were definitely needed, and there were few quick combats - and more than a couple where the clerics were kept busy keeping the front line of fighters going.

The clerics in AD&D, with a very limited spell-list, are nowhere near as dominant as they'd get later on. In particular having no healing spells at levels 2 and 3 allows them to prepare utility spells that help the party; meanwhile, the limitations on magic-user damage spells (like fireball and lightning bolt) mean that those spells tend not to be cast as often as in later editions. I'm also making it difficult to cast area effect spells on combatants once they're in melee - it's assumed they're moving enough that you can't quite judge if you'll just hit them or your friends.

And yes, the game will continue next week. I wonder who will be playing?

AD&D: Chairs of Doom

The final AD&D session of 2013 saw seven people playing, and the regular range of character levels from 1st to 9th. It also saw the group discovering What Lay Beyond the Orcs of the Bloody Eye, as - after rather destroying the first group they met - the group then negotiated their way past the other orcs. Mostly with, "Let us past or we will slaughter you", It worked pretty well.

The group actually found itself with no clerics when it began, so Shane had to hire a new henchmen to accompany the group. Paul turned up a little bit later, bringing with him his 5th level cleric henchmen, and the group was slightly better for healing. However, the major source of healing for the group was now Shane's 7th level magic-user, who had hired an alchemist and brew potions of healing. Every 2 days, for 200 gp each. So, given Shane will be playing something else next week, I expect he'll come back with quite a few potions in a fortnight's time. Or, maybe he won't - he also expressed an interest in researching some spells, find familiar in particular.

All of this downtime activity from Shane is pretty new to my campaigns; it's never something I did with Meliander, my 13th level wizard, but a large part of that came from the nature of the campaigns. Meliander lived in a campaign where he was mostly busy adventuring, and - in addition - none of us were really that familiar with the crafting rules.

It's also due to one of the many sections of the AD&D rules where Gygax was horrible at describing the procedure. Not so much as in what was required (though this is somewhat lacking), but in just being horrible to the players. The list of ingredients for the suggested scroll in the DMG? By no means is it easily attainable - other suggestions are even harder! Yes, Gleipnir may have needed six impossible things to craft, but there's a big difference between the ingredients in a myth and the ingredients in a game - especially one played with pen and paper. Computer games would later take up the torch of collecting ingredients from slain monsters and putting them together to make magical items, but in AD&D it's a level of detail and messiness that the game doesn't need.

At least, my game doesn't need it. Yours might differ.

At some point I'll probably have to work out some territory acquisition rules and the like...

Meanwhile, down in the dungeon, the group found the Chairs of Doom.

Okay, they're not actually called that, but in a room on one of the lower levels, they found four wicker chairs. Yes, one of the group sat in the chairs. For once, they weren't man-eating chairs: instead, each pair of chairs teleported you from one to the other. The group started making plans for how to use them - put one near the entrance to the dungeon, and they could bypass a lot of encounters... (and have monsters randomly teleport to the entrance! They did consider this, and decided not to put the chair in their home!)

The next set of chairs were more standard - superglue chairs. All of which led to Paul's cleric teleporting back to town without his armour - picture a slightly portly cleric, running around in rust-stained padding, looking for a new set of platemail. :)

This game can be so much fun!
AD&D PHBThe penultimate AD&D session of this year had six players in attendance, with characters ranging from first level to ninth level, and another trip into the depths of the Caverns of the Oracle. It turned out to be quite dangerous, as a number of hellhounds attacked the party as they got closer to the levels that Hextor’s followers hold in sway. The party consisted of a thief, a wizard, a low-level assassin and a number of clerics, and they were having trouble hitting the monsters – and the hellhounds were having little trouble hitting them!

One of the interesting things about the hellhounds is that they got to breathe fire every turn in addition to their regular attack – either 7 or 4 hit points per turn (depending on whether the player’s saving throw failed or was successful), and this stripped away the hit points very quickly. A number of characters went down and needed to be healed, and – in the end – Lee’s seventh level cleric was killed!

A quick trip to the capital and the high priest of his faith cost a little time and money, but it was all in vain, as Lee’s resurrection survival check failed! (A 98% on the dice!) Lee proceeded to roll well and created a new human ranger. I allow maximum hit points at first level, so Lee’s new character has 20 hit points.

Apart from that, the group faced orcs and ogres (which they retreated from), hobgoblins and trolls (which they slew, but didn’t press on as they were quite hurt) and found a door that summoned ghasts. Not really a problem for the group as they had three clerics at the time, but the clerics chose to stand in the centre of the room where the ghasts appeared! They were fortunate to not be surprised or to lose initiative... although then a few moved into melee with the turned ghasts only to be attacked (the assassin, one of the few bow-wielding characters, was paralysed for the rest of the combat!)

Another important part of the session was when the 7th level magic-users and clerics discovering they could now scribe scrolls – something that gave me some trouble in adjudicating as the AD&D DMG is somewhat vague about the costs involved. Time and success chances? No problem! How much it costs to make the ink? No idea!

The suggested cost for a scroll of protection from petrification includes a number of odd ingredients and likely 1,000 gold pieces worth of crushed gems. Possibly. Such a scroll sells on the open market for 10,000 gold pieces. Meanwhile, spell scrolls sell for 300 gp per spell level inscribed on the scroll. At the time, I assessed that the ink for one scroll would cost 1,000 gold pieces – and could be used for up to seven spells on that scroll.

Of course, getting home I wanted to research as to if there are any better costs in any of the supplemental materials, particularly FR4 The Magister, but though it has a section on creating magic items, it doesn’t really expand on the rules that much. The original game books list 100 gold pieces/spell level, so I will likely go with that for future scribing, although their time (1 week per spell level) will be discarded for the 1 day for spell level suggested in AD&D!

So, armed with scrolls of neutralise poison and knock, the group will be better equipped for their next descent into the dungeon. I do need to keep better track of time, and I need to consider what other penalties there are for the magic-users sitting out scribing – do the other characters go down without them? It may be best to let the group decide.

Lee’s new ranger managed to get a few experience points before the session came to an end. We’d started at about 5.30 pm, had a break for dinner, and it was 10.30 pm when I ended everything as it was really obvious that everyone was tired. At least, it was obvious that I was tired (as I was experiencing it), and the others had been arguing about how to deal with a trick stairwell. For twenty minutes. When the group loses the ability to make decisions, it’s time to call it a night!

I think I need to make a copy of the advice in the Players Handbook to give out to each of the players; in particular, the section on setting goals for each expedition. This is a very old-fashioned sort of mega-dungeon game (with a lot of funhouse encounters, because that’s the sort of DM I am), and the older advice still applies.

Actually, it’s very nice to see how many players at the table have copies of the Players Handbook – I think there were three or four copies there in addition to mine. (All Gygax Memorial editions. So is mine, though I have originals). The campaign is now over two years old, and I’ve switched back to running weekly sessions. Long may it continue!

First game of Bomber Command

I'd shown Sarah one of my new acquisitions last week, and, upon finding that it was just the two of us for Thursday-night gaming, she had to make a choice: play Space Empires again, or learn Bomber Command. As she put it, "It's the choice between a game I really like or one I don't know!" But she, like me, enjoys learning new games and so Bomber Command hit the table. I gave her control of the English bombing mission, gave her the rulebook and the plotting pad, and headed out to get some dinner for us both.

While I was gone, Sarah worked out how her missions - one main bombing raid and three mosquito raids - would fly to the target. The playbook suggested she chose a target in the Ruhr for the first game. She chose Essen. And then misinterpreted what a "leg" of the journey was. In fact, it's a straight line between two points where the planes turn (waypoints). She thought it was each turn's travel of two hexes. When she realised her mistake partway through the game, she revised the plot. She also mistakenly had two missions end a turn in the same hex - this is also not allowed - but it was our first game and this is the sort of mistake we expect.

One of the really fun things about Bomber Command is the plotting map. The English player plots the path of each of their missions beforehand. Then, during the game, they consult the map to work out how far the mission has got - and occasionally let the German player know. It's a brilliant mechanic, and creates a great fog-of-war. Here's how Sarah's map looked after all the corrections (and leaving in a few errors). The numbers indicate where the planes are at the end of each turn.

BC01

So, once I was back, I sorted out the German Nightfighters and placed them in the Ready box to the side of the map. Then we began. Sarah moved her forces onto the map. Or, at least, I think she did. She doesn't place counters unless I find her!

The major ways of discovering the Bombers are as follows:
* Make a detection roll equal to or above the jamming number
* The Bombers fly over flak, thus showing where they passed
* Similarly, with GCI attacks (Ground Control Interception) as they pass over alerted hexes
* Or you could just wait for them to bomb somewhere!

It takes time for the German player to scramble nightfighters to intercept: The first turn you place them on the map (and they can't do anything else). The second turn they move one hex and can attack. After that, they can move at two hexes a turn and have full capabilities. Single-Engine aircraft are faster to set up and get going, but the ones I used this game had very little fuel.

BC02
Scrambling my first two fighters

Your nightfighters act in three phases, for the most part: They get to Move in one phase. New ones then get to Scramble in the next phase (that's putting them on the map). Finally, they can be deployed to various tasks - either protecting areas or on patrol. This took me some getting used to, and I'd often forget a phase, as a result my planes took a bit to get into the air, and Sarah faced much less opposition than she otherwise would have!

Weather has a big part to play in this game: it makes it much more difficult to scramble and land again (causing losses if you're unlucky) and it affects attacks and detection. This game, most of Europe was quite clear - only Berlin was overcast, and that wasn't part of the map we would visit.

There are basically four sorts of attacks the German player can make at the incoming bombers:
* Flak attacks, automatically triggered when the bombers pass through a Flak-capable hex or bomb a city.
* GCI attacks, triggered when the bombers pass through an activated GCI hex (requires a nightfighter to be tasked to that duty).
* Wild Boar attacks, which can be made by nightfighters as a hex is being bombed.
* Tame Boar atacks, which require the nightfighter to infiltrate an attacking force and slowly take out bombers.

Sarah basically took no damage from the Flak attacks, but I was successful in infiltrating two nightfighters into the main attack group, and started shooting the English; Sarah didn't know where they were, and couldn't get rid of them.

Meanwhile, she approached Essen... my planes scrambling in her wake.

BC03

Bombing a place is a mini-game all of its own. Each size of city has its own map. The attacker gets to place 20 counters on the map (a combination of Incendaries and High Explosive), which are hopefully clustered around the target they want. There is the real possibility of landing off course...

Sarah chose to attack the residential part of town. There was no scatter, but the smog of Essen reduced the accuracy of the main strike: only four counters were placed. After that, one counter was placed in the closes hexes to the main target. That gave us the following:

BC04

Then, there is further scatter by the German player, some accuracy movement by the English, and the damage is then possibly converted into major fires and even firestorms. Finally, VPs are worked out: double points for industrial centres and transport, more points for fires.

Here's how the attack looked after the modifiers:

BC05

All in all, the attack netted Sarah 14 points: 4 for each fire, and 1 for each other hex bombed, double if it is valuable.

With the main bombing raid done, Sarah successfully used some mosquito raids to do more damage; I was unable to stop these.

However, I now had two fighters infiltrating her main raid, and they were able to do a fair amount of damage in return for very little losses.

And that was basically the game: Sarah lost a few planes on the way back, but I had scrambled too late and I wasn't able to fly them to stop the raids. Otherwise, my infiltrators did significant damage, and Sarah was happy to get back relatively safely. She'd lost 13 bombers in the main raid, and 3 in Mosquito flights - none of the Mosquito losses were confirmed, though.

The score was positive, and Sarah was relieved, but the victory conditions require more than just average. The large number of bombers I'd taken out was a sizeable penalty to overcome.

In the end, it turned out that I'd eliminated 13 bombers in the main group whilst Sarah had only shot down 2 fighters. The final swing gave the total at 7 VPs in Sarah's favour... but, for the Berlin Scenario, that counts as a loss to the English.

In retrospect, my planes could have worked smarter. Sarah chose a poor hex for her attack run on the city (too much residential nearby, not enough industry). However, we both found the game to be very enjoyable and a real challenge. The rules aren't all that hard, and I hope we get a chance to play it again soon while it's fresh in our minds.
Legacy of the Crystal ShardI never read enough of Dragon Magazine when I was younger to be familiar with Ed Greenwood's early articles, where he gave the first hint of the Forgotten Realms. For me, the Realms properly came into being with the publication of the original boxed set in 1987, and the publication of its first books, Douglas Niles' "Moonshae" trilogy, and R.A. Salvatore's "Icewind Dale" trilogy. The first book of that latter series, "The Crystal Shard" was published 25 years ago. The new adventure by Wizards of the Coast, Legacy of the Crystal Shard, returns us to the environs of those novels, although, in the Realms, about 100 years have passed.

This weekend was the Launch Event for the adventure - and the D&D Encounters season that is run using it. The adventure is also available to purchase in case you want to run it for your friends at home. Like Murder in Baldur's Gate, the adventure is written for three editions (3.5E, 4E and Next) with stats available to download from the Wizards site. And it's an adventure that gives each group a fair amount of freedom as to how they approach it. My first impression is that it isn't as wild and woolly as Murder in Baldur's Gate, but it still allows a lot of freedom while probably having more structure to aid the DM.

After our troubles in getting the Launch Event kit - and eventual triumph - I was disappointed to see some of our regulars couldn't make the session. This still left us with two tables each with five players and a DM. (I was hoping to actually reach three tables, but it wasn't to be. It did mean that I didn't have to worry about drafting a third DM). We split into basically the same groups as last season, with Paul's table running 4E and my table running D&D Next. The next hour we spent on character creation.

As we've run quite a bit of level 1-3 material, I'm going to adjust the adventure to handle levels 3-6, but due to not having the time to do it for the event, we made 1st level characters. After the event, I'd allow them to level up to 3rd and we'd go from there. I spent a bit more time on the reasons each character was in Icewind Dale than normal, as I felt that the basic explanation - "you are caravan guards" lacked something. Armed with a copy of the full adventure (which had arrived with the Launch Event), I used a few of its suggestions to help give more definition to why the group was there. Yes, some were "just" caravan guards, but we also had a Chosen of Amaunator seeking to end the winter and a thief on the run from Waterdeep after stealing a magic sword.

We had a couple of non-player characters in the caravan with the group, making their way to the Ten Towns; the caravan master, and a female dwarf who was proud of her heritage. It's quite likely that a more role-playing focused DM could do a lot with these characters. (I note, in retrospect, that the full adventure's campaign guide is sprinkled with stories from the caravan master; they would have been handy to know about when running this, but I didn't have the time to read it beforehand). I made a few nods towards role-playing (and more towards filling in the backstory), by having the dwarf tell our paladin about her background, and the tale of the Crystal Shard, an evil artefact which some of her ancestors had helped defeat.

And then it was time for the action to start - a giant snow-cat attacking the group! This was also the opportunity for the fifth character to join the group - we'd decided that the ranger was a citizen of the Ten Towns, and he'd been tracking the cat, so arrived as it attacked the group and was able to help out. The cat died pretty quickly, the group introduced themselves to the ranger, and then they had to deal with the guard the cat had mauled and an overturned wagon.

This led the group to a decision: the caravan master wanted to move on without the wagon as the weather was getting worse and more monsters were lurking; the wagon's driver wanted it to be repaired. The group didn't take very long to decide they'd stay with the driver. I've a feeling I should have the weather sound worse...

Unfortunately for those (like me) who wanted the group's decision to somewhat cost them, they aced every check to repair the wagon and find its scattered goods! The group were able to catch up to the rest of the caravan, and so came in sight of their destination, Bryn Shander.

And, as they entered the gates, they were attacked by Yeti!

yeti

The rest, tomorrow! (Sorry, really tired now, must sleep!)
Legacy of the Crystal ShardOnto Icewind Dale!

Problems with couriers meant that the delivery my FLGS should have received of the Launch Event kit still hadn't arrived on the Friday before the event... yes, the one on the next day. This was something of a problem for running it. I got extremely frustrated and a quite a bit angry and vented about it on EN World and Twitter. I calmed down quite a bit after several really good people at Wizards (Trevor Kidd, Mike Mearls, Greg Bisland and others) got in contact with me and sent me a pdf of the adventure.

This allowed me to, at least, read the adventure before I ran it, give a copy to the other DM at the store, and find the miniatures I needed to run it all. Hooray!

Meanwhile, Mark, the owner of my FLGS, was frantically calling about trying to find a copy of the adventure; he was prepared to do a 4-hour trip (there and back) to Melbourne or Geelong if he could find one, but no luck. He was relieved when I told him that I had an electronic of the adventure, but he still wanted to get me a hardcopy of the adventure, and so continued to ring other stores.

And then, at about 11 am, the courier decided that he'd deliver the adventure after all. Six hours before the event got underway. Mark was relieved. I was very happy - I'd have the map for the big encounter at the end of the adventure. And thanks to Trevor, Mike and the other good people at Wizards, I knew what miniatures I needed for the adventure.

Still, it was a huge amount more stressful than it should have been. My (likely flawed) understanding of the timeline is that the adventure arrived in Australia on the Monday, it was sent by the distributor to my FLGS on the Tuesday, and the courier finally got around to delivering it on the Saturday. All too close for comfort.

Mark was really surprised to see it arrive - the courier's Ballarat office was closed on the Saturday, and his other experience with this company had led him to believe they wouldn't make Saturday deliveries. We'd given up on having a printed copy of the adventure... and then there was one!

IWD

I picked up a second set of the Caverns of Icewind Dale dungeon tiles to help me with the icy wilderness we were sure to encounter, and we were away! As to what occurred in the session... I'll get back to that in a couple of hours.

I really must stress how important the response from Mike Mearls, Greg Bilsland, Trevor Kidd and others at Wizards was for both my peace of mind and the enjoyment of the adventure. Without their help, I wouldn't have been able to read the adventure before running it, nor make sure I had the right miniatures (and tiles) for it. I was extremely frustrated and angry, and they were able to help me. It means a lot. Thank you all, so much.
Legacy of the Crystal ShardThis weekend is the Launch Event for Legacy of the Crystal Shard, the latest season of D&D Encounters, and also the latest adventure release from Wizards of the Coast. As with Murder in Baldur's Gate, this is an adventure for 1st-3rd level characters that supports three editions: 3.5E, 4E and Next. The adventure proper has no stats in it, instead they're given in downloadable files on Wizards' site - you download the file matching the edition you wish to use. I haven't seen the adventure yet, but it should be in store on Tuesday, the day before the season starts.

I don't actually have a physical copy of the Launch Weekend kit, but the good people at Wizards of the Coast upon hearing that it hadn't arrived in time, contacted me and sent me an electronic copy. Unfortunately, it does mean I likely won't have a copy of the map for the session, which is a great pity: it looks great from the previews I've seen. (A town gate and a few houses and the road outside, all covered with snow). If you get to the Launch Weekend, it's likely you'll have it available.

The Launch Event covers the players arriving in Icewind Dale, setting of more than one of R.A. Salvatore's popular books. He's one of the three writers of this adventure, along with James Wyatt and Jeffrey Ludwig. Development and Editing was covered by Greg Bilsland.

The adventurers arrive with a caravan; the default is that they're caravan guards, although it's unlikely to break anything if they've got other reasons for travelling to the dale (other reasons are apparently given in the full adventure). Once they get there, they find the township in trouble and, of course, combat will erupt. Much like the Launch Event for Murder in Baldur's Gate, this adventure handles it with linked encounters, one blending into another to create a greater narrative and more excitement. It's a great technique, and it should be fun to play and run.

It isn't all combat; there are several opportunities for role-playing and one really good moment where the players will be faced with a difficult choice (I love seeing the players having to make real choices: each has good points and bad points, which allows role-playing to occur within the group). And, of course, it ends with the group being given options for how they proceed into the rest of the adventure. Much like Murder in Baldur's Gate, you can work for several different people as the adventure progresses, allowing player choice to play a significant role in how the adventure progresses.

The adventure isn't as "big", event-wise, as the start of the last. This is a precursor; enough to alert players to the fact that "something is wrong" without overshadowing what comes later. There's a fair bit of evocative detail, and each of the main NPCs gets about half-a-page of background information; a great resource for bringing them to life.

The combat in the adventure looks quite challenging, especially the first encounter. (I wonder if it will kill anyone on the 3.5E tables? It looks tough enough). My guess is that the adventure will take about 2 hours to play, dependent on edition.

So, does the adventure look good? It does. Will it play well? Not long until I find out!

Review of EX1: Dungeonland

pic1572139_mdWhile Tracy Hickman was ushering in the new style of D&D adventures, Gary Gygax was still producing adventures of the whimsical, fun-house dungeon tradition. EX1: Dungeonland was originally a sub-level of the Castle Greyhawk dungeons in Gygax's original campaign, but, with the rest of Castle Greyhawk lacking, was released on its own to be inserted into campaigns as the individual DM saw fit.

As the adventure takes place in a small pocket dimension, this actually works quite well. Its style means it best works as part of a dungeon-delving campaign (such as a mega-dungeon campaign) rather than a story-based campaign, and it certainly harkens back to the early days of D&D where inventive dungeon encounters were extremely important for keeping the players entertained.

Of course, the most notable thing about Dungeonland is that it is based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The situations and characters met by Alice have been converted into D&D encounters. As an adventure for 9th-12th level characters, these encounters are particularly deadly, and there are a few death traps that can kill the characters of unwary or unprepared players. There is a certain arbitrariness to a lot of the material, which is not entirely out-of-keeping with the logic of Carroll's original work.

Structurally, the adventure is fairly linear, with the paths through the woods taking the group from one encounter to another in the order that Alice encountered them. Some of the translation is extremely inventive, for instance there's a senile arch-mage who likes wandering around in the form of a rabbit, and the use of a smilodon (sabre-toothed) tiger for the Cheshire Cat is brilliant.

Thankfully, not everything in the realm wants to kill the characters; there are several encounters that are played entirely for their role-playing potential, although it's entirely possible the players will wish to kill the strange creatures of this realm afterwards due to their madness, which, of course, gives great material to the DM for entertaining the group.

The adventure culminates in a potential mass melee in the palace as the Jack of Hearts plants the jewelled tarts owned by the Queen on one of the characters; "Off with their heads!" screams the Queen, and wise players will find it is a good moment to make themselves scarce (probably following the Jack away), otherwise the resulting battle is likely to be a challenge for the DM, with many, many participants!

I admit that I'm very fond of this adventure (as I am of the source material). The whimsical (if not downright insane) characters found within have been a huge hit with the players I've run the adventure for, and I'm sure I'll find a place for it in future campaigns.

That said, the adventure would be completely out of place in a more serious, story-focused campaign. Can you imagine dropping it into the middle of Pharaoh or Temple of Elemental Evil? It represents a different line of adventure design.

There are no credits for this adventure save Gary Gygax, but the cover artwork is definitely by Jim Holloway, who remains one of my least favorite artists who has worked on D&D. The interior art, on the other hand, is by Tim Truman and is fantastic and particularly evocative.

Dungeonland would be followed by its companion piece later in the same year, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, which covered the other Alice book. You shouldn't approach Dungeonland expecting a standard D&D adventure or a straight covering of Alice's adventures, but what is here is very entertaining, if your campaign can stand it!

Review of I5: Lost Tomb of Martek

pic1732786_mdThe Desert of Desolation trilogy ends with the Lost Tomb of Martek. In it, our heroes need to find the tomb of the legendary wizard Martek in order to finally defeat the evil efreeti that has been ravaging the land. It's a suitably epic climax to the series, but it doesn't quite come off.

Tracy Hickman had done a good job of incorporating both his previously written adventure Pharaoh and Philip Meyer's Oasis of the Lost Palm into an overall structure; the problems with the structure - primarily that the players might never release the efreeti in Pharaoh - are relatively minor and something that he would find a solution for in his later works. Both adventures had been seeded with mentions of Martek, a wizard who had foreseen the release of the efreeti and had put plans in place to see it defeated; all of the business in Oasis about the bride's handmark and the amulet is Martek's work.

Now all the characters need to do is find Martek's tomb and his Sphere of Power. The keys for the tomb are in their possession already - the three Star Gems, so all they need to do is get there. Between them and the tomb is the Skysea - a place where the sand has fused into glass, so the sky is reflected in the ground. To travel on it (as it becomes devastatingly hot during the day), the group need to acquire a cloudskate or skyship, which skates on a thin blade over the glass. It's one of the best concepts in the series, but unfortunately little more is done with it - only random encounters might threaten the group as they're on the skyship. It's a throwaway detail, really, but greatly evocative.

Hickman shifts gears when the group enter the first portion of the tomb, and we get the first major interaction of the adventure: the degenerate descendants of treasure seekers trapped in a magical garden. I'm not very fond of this section: you have the descendants of paladins and the descendants of thieves. They don't like each other, and I feel it detracts from the serious tone of the rest of the series - I don't mind occasional lighter elements, but this feels forced and wrong.

It doesn't help that the big thing wrong with the adventure is introduced here: three NPCs who try to steal the Star Gems and, if they do, spend the rest of the adventure being chased through the tomb as the group try to catch them.

What's wrong with that? Well, AD&D doesn't handle chases well. Fights against single NPCs are typically boring. And there are significant problems with fighting high-level magic-users, as Trifakas is (a 12th level magic-user!) - one or two failed saves and that's it for the party! Or Trifakas.

This wouldn't be such a problem if the next section of the adventure was good enough to stand on its own, but it isn't. Once within the tomb proper, the group still need to go on a treasure hunt for three crystal minarets. The three demi-planes they need to go to find them are great inventions, but only one of them is good for adventuring: the mobius tower, where everything is "time locked" and can't move (save through a few special instances). It's a good example of where theme and adventure potential come together.

Unfortunately, the Black Abyss, where space, time and magic begin to breakdown in fascinating ways, has no actual threat to it save random encounters and the potential NPCs, and the Crypt of Al-Alisk, despite once again being an interesting place at its core, lacks challenge - really, it comes down to working out a single teleport trap to complete.

And wouldn't it be easier to just wait near the door for the three NPCs to get the minarets, then defeat them and take the spoils?

That is the bulk of the adventure. The final section - the Citadel of Martek - involves the group finally bringing Martek back to life, him rewarding them, and finally an epilogue that closes the adventure and series in suitable style.

Tracy Hickman displays great invention in this adventure, but rarely is it employed on things that translate to exciting adventuring; setting-wise there's not much to fault, but the entire adventure feels incredibly light on good adventuring material. This is a great shame, as the first two parts of the Desert of Desolation are superlative.

Production-wise, the maps are very good and most of the (uncredited) artwork is also fine - the weakest part is the cover by Holloway. As with the other adventures in the series, it has two nested covers which have most of the maps printed on them.



"The desert is returned to its people; the Efreeti is no more. One final gift I give to you. Those people that cast you into this desert land will no longer remember you. You are once again free to travel the face of this world as you want. All to whom you tell this tale will believe it to be but a fable. Only you shall know the truth of what you have seen. There are yet other prophesies to be fulfilled! Farewell, my friends!"

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