Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Dungeon Crawl Classics #34; Cage of Delirium (Rough Draft)

The Dungeon Crawl Classics line of d20 modules from Goodman Games just keeps on going and going. But they aren't afraid to try different things, either. This is one of those different things.

Basically, it's a module that comes with a musical soundtrack. Or rather, it seems to be a module built around an existing musical soundtrack. Specifically, "Gates of Delirium" by Midnight Syndicate. Which is

Besides the cd itself, you get the inserts to put in a jewel case (which is a nice touch, and how I know the cd dates from 2001, according to the copyright notice on it).

The use of music in gaming can be helpful, but at times, it can be a distraction. Still, I remember when I first starting playing D&D, my friend would play the song "Dragon Attack" off of Queens latest (at the time) album, The Game, whenever a dragon would attack in the game.

I am a big music fan, but I am, I must confess, something of a snob when it comes to music (I don't mean to be, it just happens when most of the stuff you listen to only comes out on vinyl). I was honestly expecting to hate the music in this, and honestly, figured it would be very amateurish. But I was quite surprised - it's actually both quite good and professional quality.

The module

This is a somewhat unusual module for d20, in it takes place in a haunted asylum. I mean, how many D&D settings actually have asylums? About the only one it really fits would be Ravenloft, I think. I suspect it would probably be most useful for a d20 Modern game where the PCs were ghost hunters/paranormal investigators.

The asylum actually burned down (mostly) 40 years ago, and has a very tragic past. The head of the asylum had twin sons. Like all twins, one was good, one was evil. The good son ended up becoming a doctor at the asylum; the evil son was comitted to the asylum as a patient.

The good son ended up marrying a cured patient. This really drove his evil twin mad. So he concocted a scheme, whereby he would somehow switch places with the good twin. And he managed to pull it off. (I think I were a twin, and had a brother who was locked up in an asylum, I would get a tattoo saying "I am the sane twin" (or something to that effect)).

Anyway, now in place as the head doctor of the place (their father, the former head, having passed away before the coup), the evil twin had something of a reign of terror over the asylum. And when the wife of the good twin realized that they had switched places, the evil twin had her re-comitted. But not before she became pregnant. Which twin is the father, she didn't know.

His reign of terror went on for a while, some more tragedy struck, then eventually the patients rioted under the leadership of the good twin, and in the confusion, the place burned down. Killing almost everyone.

But the asylum and its dead would not rest peacefully. And so enter the PCs, to put them to rest. (There's really not a great hook for the PCs to get involved, though there are some examples given - the former head nurse being on her deathbed is one, another involves them being asked to by a local cleric).

The module itself takes up about 45 pages (the background takes up a good 5-6 pages, as do handouts) and about 40 keyed areas.

While there is some combat, a lot of the module consists of simply investigating the old place. It really is haunted by its history, and the PCs will encounter bits and pieces of it as they explore.

To get to the heart of the matter (the spirit of the evil twin) and confront him, they have to lower a necromantic energy barrier. This is done by doing various tasks - usually setting various spirits at peace. In the case of good spirits, doing something to make them happy (often by bringing them their favorite object which the evil twin took away and hid). That's right - while it goes against the DCC slogan, there are several NPCs in this that the PCs are meant to talk to, not just kill. The evil ones they can (and are supposed to) kill though.


To a certain extent, the DCC modules mimic the old TSR modules in how they look. Basically, little white space and a very simple layout. For the most part it's readable where there is a new area, but in the begining where there are no breaks, it can be a bit hard to read.

Final Thoughts

This is a rather unusual module in the Dungeon Crawl Classics line. While it definitely is still a "crawl", in that the PCs must comb the place in the course of the adventure, it's the only one of the line that I have where the background story is so vivid and so important to the module itself. It would actually make a decent horror movie, I think. Actually, now that I think about it, it would make a pretty good survival horror video game (in the vein of Silent Hill or Fatal Frame moreso than Resident Evil or Moonwalker). Definitely very memorable.

As mentioned, I do really think that an asylum like this really wouldn't fit most D&D settings, and many things, like the treatments and the place itself seem very 18th-19th centuryish, almost Victorian. So that does dramatically reduce the usefulness of this module. But on the other hand, it's not like the module pretends to be anything put a haunted asylum module, it makes no pretense of anything else, so the buyer does know what they are getting.

It's actually ironic, I recently got the first of Green Ronin's "Bleeding Edge" line of d20 modules, which also dealt with somewhat gothic horror (and as part of their slogan, takes something of a potshot at the DCC series). But this is far more "Bleeding Edge" than their initial entry.

Mansion of Shadows (d20) from Green Ronin

This is the first in the line of "Bleeding Edge" adventures from Green Ronin. What exactly makes them "Bleeding Edge"? Good question. They give a list of 4 things: Good Story, Drop & Play (in terms of setting), Self Contained (in terms of rules), and Flexibility (in terms of game systems, at least d20 variants from Green Ronin themselves in the form of web supplements). I'm not sure any of that is all that new, but eh*.

This is from Robert Schwalb, an author whose worked I have really liked (Shadows in Freeport) and was sort of "meh" about (Big Trouble in Little Durbenford)**. So I wasn't sure what to expect. But early reports were good, and I tend to like modules about mysterious mansions with creepy families (Castle Amber for D&D, Morrick Mansion for 3.0).

The adventure itself...

It's got a very in-depth background, actually. But it can be summed up fairly quickly. Basically an evil cultist wants to perform a ritual to unleash a horrible evil upon the land. Most of the ritual involves this noble family, basically each one of the children of the family is possessed by a demon (or spirit) of one of the 7 Deadly Sins. But he can't get thrown into the mansion to complete the ritual, so he has to get it attacked by villagers so he can sneak in during the siege.

Although the module is 48 pages, it's a pretty short adventure. It consists of 5 basic scenes: The PCs saving one of the families kids from demons, and thus getting an invite to the mansion; some dinking around in town; them having dinner at the mansion and meeting the family; the PCs wandering around the mansion; the finale with irate villagers storming the mansion and the PCs interfering with the final part of the ritual.

I can't imagine the whole thing would take more than a session (3-4 hours) and a half. Maybe two if you dragged things out.

The reason the module is fairly lengthly in terms of page count while being somewhat short is that because while the adventure itself is somewhat railroad-ish, there's lot of extra info in case the PCs stray from the path, so to speak. You get the basics of the village in the area. You get a complete room by room description of the mansion itself (though it's not dungeon crawly at all).

However, I was expecting more attention given to the role-playing aspects. Most of the NPCs are covered rather superficially in terms of description. And in fact, because each of the family members is basically a parody of the 7 deadly sins, they have no real personalities. Servants get a line of description each.

The layout is nice and classy looking. The maps are also very decent. The art is okay, but a bit amateurish looking - hands and faces look a little funny (unless that's meant to be the style.)

Final Thoughts:

I think this gets a "meh" from me. It's not bad, exactly, but I didn't really like it, either.

First off, the plot of an evil cultist wanting to unleash hell is somewhat cliched. In fact, Green Ronin has a adventure with the same basic plot (though with very different specifics) in Hell in Freeport. The 7 sins theme is also worn out.

It's also rather tricky in a low-level adventure, because often the players will be just starting out. And because low level characters are fragile - for them, running away is often the best option for survival. In something like this, that can have serious consequences for your game-world.

Secondly, although it says the product is "Self-Contained", in reality it uses a lot of stuff (classes in particular) from various Green Ronin books. I do not consider it "Self Contained" to use a class from another book and not include the rules for that class, simply just a stat block and suggestions for other classes in case you need to change the stats. (This bugged me in "Shadows in Freeport" and that make no pretense about self-containment).

Similarly, I have some doubts about it's "Drop & Play" nature. Because of the whole 7 Deadly Sins theme, you need to have a campaign world where the 7 sins are well, sins. Yet in the real world, that's pretty much only medieval Western Europe. It started off as a list of 8 "temptations" or passions by some monks living in a desert, then evolved into the modern list of 7 for a variety of reasons that only make sense in part of our world, and because more than anything else, it's a catchy phrase.

This adventure would make a lot of sense for a game set in medieval Western Europe, like Ars Magica or Cthulhu Dark Ages, but just doesn't in a lot of D&D game settings, much less some d20 variants (including ones that Green Ronin provides stats for, like Thieves World and Black Company).

In fact, the module actually reminds me of a 60s Hammer horror movie, one of the ones based on a tale by Poe or some gothic author.

Thirdly, I think the module is too rushed, and not subtle enough. Rather than there basically being only role-playing scene with the family (the dinner), the creepiness of the family should have been spread out over a longer period of time. Say a week? At any rate, with more than just one basic event. And I feel that the creepiness of the family is just not that creepy. The 7 Deadly Sins aspect just makes them caricatures, not real people.

I would probably give it a 2.5, C-.

* I'm guessing the "Bleeding Edge" has to do with the somewhat dark nature of the module. For instance, one of the children lusts after his mother. It's implied that one of the NPCs was brutally abused by evil humanoids (Bugbears, I think) and driven crazy.

** Both of which I have reviewed, but I think those reviews were eaten in the great database crash at ENWorld. should still have them.