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Sunday, 28 January 2018

Reviewing Bad

Here is an interesting situation. Almost a decade ago, in 2009, I wrote a review of Age of Cthulhu II: Madness in London Town. It was one of the infrequent negative reviews that I have written and as exercises in writing and reviewing, they can be quite fun to do. At the time, my editor asked me if I wanted to reconsider. After all, the review was not written in a discursive style and it was direct and to the point about the issues that I had with the scenario. I reread the review and decided that I wanted to stick to what I had written. The editor duly posted the review and I moved on to the next review. To this day, I cannot recall what that review was, or the one before it, but I do remember my review of Age of Cthulhu II: Madness in London Town. I also remember how I was unprepared for how unhappy the publisher was with the review and the relatively minor controversy this caused. At the time it was strange experience, to watch online as a furore swirled around a couple of thousand words I had written.


Now in 2018, another reviewer, Bryce Lynch of tenfootpole.org, has posted a review to https://rpggeek.com/ of a scenario called Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin. It should be noted that this review is written in line with Lynch’s particular standards when it comes to writing reviews of Old School Renaissance titles, but like my review of Age of Cthulhu II: Madness in London Town, this review of Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin has attracted some attention and not necessarily for the right reasons.

Published by Jon Brazer Enterprises, this is a dungeon adventure designed to be played by six characters of Sixth Level using Swords & Wizardry Complete, the retroclone published by Frog God Games. Previous versions of the scenario were written for use with Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age, Paizo’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition from Wizards of the Coast. This version of Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin is the publisher’s first offering for Swords & Wizardry and the Old School Renaissance.

The adventure opens with the line, “Northam has been razed. None survived. Send reinforcements immediately.” It is delivered by an injured man who staggers into the adventurers’ camp before promptly dropping dead. The party has camped on the edge of a boggy area known as the Crannogs, at the heart of which is the Great Swamp. The area is policed and patrolled by the Stormhammer Rangers—and the dead man happens to be a Stormhammer scout. When the party reaches Northam, the adventurers find that its buildings smashed, livestock slaughtered, its inhabitants either dead or missing, and the following words burned into the ground: “Beware The Blackener Of Bright Waters, For She Is Come Again.” They also learn that the town was attacked by a force of lizardmen and wyverns from the nearby Ixtupi tribe and that the force stole the skull of Nyrionaxys which was mounted on the wall of the town’s mead hall. 

Long ago, the Crannogs was a country known as Greenacre governed by a society of druids. Then the Ixtupi tribe, led by the black dragon queen, Nyrionaxys, attacked, destroying the druids, despoiling their temple, and as well as establishing draconic rule and turning the land into a greater swamp. Eventually, Nyrionaxys’ rule was overthrown, the Ixputi tribe driven back, and ultimately, Nyrionaxys herself was cut apart as she slept… The question is, why has the Ixputi tribe returned to attack the peoples of the Crannogs and what does it want with Nyrionaxys’ skull? Clues point to another upcoming attack and from there to the Temple of Ixputi…

The main focus of the adventure is on the Temple of Ixtupi, which offers five levels of dungeon exploration and combat. Over the course of their exploration, the adventurers will face an interesting mix of monsters, some wholly new, some modified. They include Befouled Spirits—Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, Mud Zombies, a variety of Black Dragon-Lizardmen hybrids, and more. In fact, the design of these monsters is actually one of the best features in Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin, the author clearly having had fun in mashing the various creatures into hybrids. On the downside, the Dungeon Master may need to refer to The Tome of Horrors Complete and Monstrosities supplement for the full details of some of the monsters used in Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin.

One further indication of how well the monsters are handled in Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin are the notes titled ‘Thinking Like A Black Dragon’. This boxed section gives four or five ideas as to how the Dungeon Master might like to use Nyrionaxys, the aim being to make her a memorably dangerous and deadly foe. Some of it is obvious, such as the fact that Nyrionaxys will not simply await the arrival of the player characters, but it nevertheless adds to the ‘deadly’ aspect of Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin.

If the design and handling of the monsters is entertaining and well thought out, the dungeon not always so. The Temple of Ixtupi is part-temple, part-tomb and so it suffers from being rather linear. The dungeon design also relies quite a lot on secret doors, which sets up two possible problems. One is that the player characters’ progress may be hindered and the others is that a lot of the scenario’s secrets will remain hidden, which in some cases may deny the player characters an advantage in facing their foes. Another problem is that the scenario may not offer enough Experience Points for a party of Sixth Level characters to attain Seventh Level.

Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin comes as a thirty-four-page, full colour, 3.4 MB PDF. In fact, it is highly colourful. The artwork is excellent in its depiction of the monsters to be found in the scenario, though more illustrations of the monsters would have been great for Dungeon Master to show to his players, especially of Nyrionaxys. The maps are problematic in that some of their details are unclear, primarily because of the use of colour. That said, the scenario comes with a separate PDF of the maps for easy reference.

Now Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin is not a perfect scenario. There are two issues with the scenario’s beginning. One is that this beginning, although striking, may not be strong enough to spur the player characters to act and perhaps a stronger beginning might have been to have them attacked by Nyrionaxys’ forces. The other is that the scenario’s background is overwritten and conveying a lot of this information to his players may be a challenge for the Dungeon Master.

Despite its imperfections, Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin lives up to the series title of ‘Deadly Delves’. It is dangerous and the foes the adventurers will face are fearsome. It should provide a session or two’s worth of solid play, which is what every reasonable adventure should provide.

To return to the review which sparked this one, it is often asserted that reviews have no effect. Not so in the case of my review of Age of Cthulhu II: Madness in London Town. In the aftermath of the kerfuffle around my 2009 review, the publisher was gracious enough to come to me and ask if I wanted to edit future titles in the Age of Cthulhu line. I have since edited several entries in the line and I have a good working relationship with the publisher and it was a pleasure to finally meet him at GenCon 50 last year.

In the case of Bryce Lynch’s review of Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin, the immediate outcome of the publisher some three hours after reading the review was his decision to withdraw from releasing further titles for use with Swords & Wizardry. Effectively, this cemented the company’s previous decision to put its Old School Renaissance plans on hold—permanently. For a time, the publisher also made the scenario free to purchase. These are, of course, only the immediate effects of the review, it being too early to see if there will be any greater effect upon either the reviewer or the publisher. Yet whenever someone says that reviews have no effect or influence in our hobby, sometimes that is not always the case.