Blogging in Exile: Dragon Mountain Sunday, Dec 12 2010 

I’ve finally finished reading Dragon Mountain. It’s not quite as bad as I’d anticipated, but there are still some serious flaws with the product.

Firstly, though, in the interests of full disclosure: I hate poster maps. They’re difficult to read properly and easily damaged, and with GMing space at a premium—and already filled with scenarios, rulebooks, screens and handfuls of dice, etc.—they’re impossible to use at the table. The detail on them is rarely dense enough to justify their size. Temple of Elemental Evil managed to address these problems with a map booklet, a solution which would’ve worked perfectly adequately for Dragon Mountain.

In this case, TSR chose to go with glossy, single-sided maps, and, boy, are they ugly. Diesel’s by-hand cartography, as always, is technically flawless—TSR often received fan-mail, asking about their mapping software—but between the choice of colours to denote different sections of the dungeon (and either I have a rare form of colour blindness, or the orange and the brown look awfully alike), the enormous, empty rooms and the contrived geometry, the poster maps are an eyesore. In truth, the dungeon could probably have been a third the size and still have worked perfectly adequately. To their credit, though, they’re clearly labelled, which is more than I can say for some of the boxed set’s other inclusions…

The adventure itself is divided into three books, the first of which deals with getting the PCs to the dungeon itself. It’s mostly a wild goose chase, revolving around the hunt for pieces of the map to the eponymous mountain. It suffers from a few structural issues, but is overall light-hearted and fairly playable. In a couple of places, however, it refers to monk NPCs, a character class which had been excised from AD&D 2e.

The last couple of pages very briefly cover the village at the base of the mountain. The poor villagers are literally besieged by kobolds, and of course, need the PCs’ aid. Apparently, the mountain’s appearance has totally taken the villagers by surprise; however, given that it apparently shows up every 20 years or so, it’s difficult to believe that nobody can remember its last appearance. Perhaps the last two-thirds of a page of the first book are devoted to the siege itself, for which the box provides two otherwise unlabelled poster maps in 1-inch-to-5-foot scale. And with this, GMs are left to their own devices to run an 800-combatant melee.

The other two books (along with the aforementioned three poster maps and a series of loose maps printed on cardstock) examine the mountain itself in depth. Whilst radically different in tone from the first book, it’s not too badly written at all. The dungeon’s history, its traps and the kobold guardians’ society have been very well thought out and explained. The interior art is adequate, if a bit basic, but is notable as The Spiderwick Chronicles’ Tony diTerlizzi‘s very first commission out of art school.

In a number of places, however, the GM is encouraged to fill in empty sections of the dungeon with their own material, or to draw their own detail maps for areas only broadly marked on the posters. This may have been acceptable in a product like Keep on the Borderlands, but in a box an inch and a half thick, retailing for $US30 when it was released in 1993, it’s simply lazy and unforgivable.

Another bugbear—if I may use the term—is with the handouts. They’re printed on “special” (which is to say, cheap commercial parchment) paper and numbered out of sequence with the order they appear in the main text. Handout #8 is missing (or, at least, it is in my box), but that’s not necessarily a problem, as the adventure doesn’t refer to it; then again, the adventure does refer to a “Cardsheet #8” which isn’t actually marked as such. When the handouts are referred to, however, it’s simply by number and not by content, nor are there copies for the GM to peruse.

Nor, for that matter, is there a summary anywhere of what should be in the box.

There are some Monstrous Compendium entries for new monsters (and there are a fair number of these). There are also some thick cardstock cutouts to use in lieu of miniatures (although the dragon is far too small and there aren’t nearly enough kobolds), an unlabelled tactical poster map—this time ungridded—for part of the final encounter, a picture of the dungeon’s front gates on cardstock (an image which the adventure fails to acknowledge) and details on a couple of NPCs. For some reason, there’s also a poster of the box’s front cover, with the word WOW! plastered across the top and a bit of copy gushing about how wonderful the boxed set is.

If you like kobolds, then you really can’t go past Dragon Mountain, perhaps the first product to really feature them in depth; the mountain’s keepers are clearly Meepo‘s ancestors. But the maps will need to be redrawn and overall, the boxed set seems rushed, its many parts ill-fit together.

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Blogging in Exile: 2e Stuff Thursday, Dec 9 2010 

Finished reading Night Below. It didn’t blow me out of the water, but it’s nonetheless one of my favourite products published for AD&D 2e. One thing that struck me was that, in the entire campaign, there was exactly one Drow NPC. Carl Sargent, I want to have your babies.

I’ve also finished the first book of Dragon Mountain, another AD&D 2e mega-boxed set. Thus far, it looks suspiciously like they repurposed a 1st-edition module from the slush pile, poorly grafted it onto a megadungeon they had lying around, and then drew straws to fill the editing credit.

More on it when I’ve read the entire thing, but I can tell that this “most deluxe dungeon ever published” was released during TSR’s interdict on third-party D&D accessories—even with the limited production quality of the time, any half-interested competitor could easily have come up with a better product.

Blogging in Exile: Dungeon Siege II Tuesday, Dec 7 2010 

I’d hoped, one day, to buy a desktop PC to handle games and other graphics-intensive tasks, but never actually got around to it; hence, my laptop (which I bought to write and take with me on holidays) has to do double duty. Between paltry hardware and a paltry operating system (I’m looking at you, Vista), there aren’t too many games that I can play. Then again, I rarely do so, anyway; an RPG can take me well over a year to complete.

Thus, I just finished Dungeon Siege II (bar some minor mopping up), some five years after everyone else in the world. A few things have struck me.

Firstly, I much preferred the art in the first one; DSII aimed for “atmospheric” but ended up somewhere between “WoW-meets-hentai with all the naughty bits airbrushed out” and “too dark to see anything”. What’s with the archmages’ faces? And Valdis was all horns and shoulder pads, with a sword like a giant, cast-iron dildo—I was supposed to fear a guy in shoulder pads, who threatens the world with a dead god’s dick-proxy? “Oh, no, it’s Valdis the Giggleworthy! Quickly, let’s run and hide!”

Secondly, encounters should advance the story, not just hospitalise players with carpal tunnel syndrome. I’m sick to death of wave after wave of hold-the-button-down mooks, especially on the mountain at the end.

And how I am I supposed to get the eighth item in the “Lorethal’s Legacy” set, when all the items are randomly—but level-appropriately—assigned? Oh, and 86 gold is an appropriate reward for a seven-minute, 41st-level combat? That said, however, I think I spent more time trying to assess the relative values of rings and amulets than actually killing things. If I thought that was fun, then I’d get a job at Cash Converters.

And lastly, what’s with the freakin’ Aegis? I spend all game trying to assemble a kickarse shield, and then I don’t even get to use it?

Apparently, I can use my character to play the game again, at a higher difficulty. So, uh, I can do the same shit all over again, with the same mooks adjusted for my level? That’s replayability?

Um, no, thank you. I’ll pass.

Speaking of things I should’ve finished years ago, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Night Below, the AD&D 2e Underdark campaign box-set. It turns out that “Underdark” is a trademark. Never noticed that before.