A neuronphaser.com review.
Slaves begins with a quick table for players to determine their characters’ living status at the start of play, just in case this is their first session with these characters (a deadly proposition given that this adventure’s pretty tough!). The vast majority of the options are negative: you can’t read or write; even your dirt has dirt on it; you have 2d6 teeth remaining; you get disadvantage (1 less die) on saving throws. It’s amusing and really shows off Venger’s sense of humor, but it’s also punishing and doesn’t hit any of the truly off-the-wall notes you’ll see throughout the rest of this adventure’s random tables or the rest of the author’s body of work.
In a lot of ways, though, this table should give you a really good idea of whether this adventure will fit with your group’s play style. Basically, if you value long-term character growth and intricate backstory, you’re barking up the wrong tree. If you have more of a Paranoia RPG mindset and view your character as a hapless bastard about to bite off more than they can chew in a fantasy world of dragons and Elder Gods that prey on your sanity, then this is going to be one hell of a fun ride!
There’s a table of rumors the party might have heard, and then the intro, which is really just a couple of vignettes wherein the party witnesses the funeral of the priest of the village of Needham, and then the corruptive, destructive power of the caves. These scenes don’t leave a lot for players to really do other than bear witness and maybe gain a couple random bits of info that might save them later on if they are really paying attention — don’t give into the mind-controlling lady’s lies and don’t let acidic ooze touch you — but there’s not much in the way of making lots of dice rolls or stretching the mechanics of the game, which is a flaw if this truly is the first run through of the game with your characters.
That said, the stuff they witness is evocative, and can lead to some fun roleplay…or it might scare the wits outta them, and make them avoid the cave at all costs. It really pays to read your group and if they show reluctance to help save this poor village bereft of the only protection they once had (the dead priest), you may need to add some hooks like, “Hey, I think we lost some sweet artifacts in that cave a generation or two back!” (There’s a magic sword that works particularly well as motivation for the party to hunt it down; it’s in the hands of the Oracle, Kyr-ann.)
The Cave: Background & Tools
And then we get to the cave proper, which gets an introduction as to what’s really going on (a MacGuffin that’s basically a malfunctioning teleporter) and some hints about how and why the caves are stocked the way they are. There’s also some tables:
- What does the creature want? (A table of motivations so you can change up the initial attitude of the monsters, or determine attitudes for new monsters you might want to add to the caves, given that the teleporter will restock the caves periodically.)
- What kind of cave is it? (A table of physical descriptions for the caves leading off of the main chamber, often with neat environmental effects that will radically change up the tactics the party needs to employ, or that the monsters use to fight them.)
- What’s inside? (A table of smaller features that might crop up in the individual caves or in the tunnels in-between the caves.)
There’s two minor problems in this section. The first is that it’s not entirely clear how these tables interact with the larger environment of the cave, despite all the cool tools and the neat MacGuffin that are presented. You’re not given any advice on how the teleporter or the force field surrounding it work or how they can be influenced by the party. The tables provide some great atmospherics, but most of the caves described in this section are pretty clear on what physically exists within them, so the results you may roll contradict the environmental descriptions or might make very little sense of the inhabitants to remain within them.
Additionally, there’s little in the way of logic as to why most of the monsters haven’t just up and left the place; we’re just told that this is the current roster of monsters and NPCs in the cave and the players walk into that situation.
The second minor problem is that some of the table results are just not to this reviewer’s liking. While I appreciate randomness and weirdness, there’s maybe a handful of the results that just fall flat (keep in mind that there are dozens of possible results, though). On the What’s inside? table, for example, you might roll “Milk chocolate center.” That’s all it gives you. I mean, it’s vaguely funny, but how do you actually run that? Especially if there’s a sexy succubus laying on a lounge seat in the center of the room, according to the room description?
Keep in mind, these issues are minor. Coming up with the answers or ignoring the whackier results are things that take barely a few seconds of brain-power for even a starting GM. But things like the MacGuffin’s weaknesses or mechanisms seem more like a miss than simply a problem with play style or genre conventions.
The Cave: The Adventure
And then we get the rest of the adventure: 17 fully described rooms (including the central chamber with the teleporter) and monsters or NPCs in just about every single one of them. Plus a fleshed-out random encounter that might occur if the teleporter activates after the party’s been in the caves for a while.
The caves and their inhabitants feature a fantastic mix of roleplaying interaction, cosmic mystery, deadly combat, and alien horror. Most of the monsters and NPCs have goals and an initial attitude noted (hostile, guarded, friendly, etc.), and full stats, with only a couple exceptions. The exceptions generally work in the GM’s favor so they can riff off the events of the adventure thus far: changing up initial attitudes, using the random tables provided earlier to come up with some fun and surprising twists even they couldn’t have foreseen, and basically spicing things up throughout the exploration of these caves.
A few examples of what you’ll see:
- A friendly, albeit confused, alien traveler stranded in this world.
- Hostile ancient reptilians and dangerous foliage seeking to escape the caves.
- A robot that can be controlled by an enterprising wizard PC.
- A mind-controlling succubus-like woman.
- A horrific beast that is equal parts John Carpenter’s The Thing and an avatar of an Elder God.
The only miss I found was that there’s an NPC (“The Dazed Man”) who is basically a throwaway mention without stats or background, and that the adventure concludes with a portal opening to what’s likely to be effectively a Hell of insanity and death. There’s not really a conclusion to the adventure since there’s no way to interact with the teleporter, but in the spirit of the Paranoia RPG this is probably a perfect hosejob: the party goes through all this stuff only to die or get teleported to hell.
The mix of zany monsters, villains, and allies the party will interact is indeed the crux of the adventure, though. But the adventure doesn’t just end with the portal to hell, because there’s a random table called Not Dead…Yet! that allows the players to roll their characters’ ultimate fate — it’s not clear if it just relates to the romp through the caves or after going through the portal — and most of the results provide motivation for future adventures, or inflict the character with lingering trauma or personality disorders that will influence how they play in future adventure scenarios.
There are two versions of Crimson Dragon Slayer: a “first edition” and then the CDS 1.11 One Hour Game (both links are my reviews of each), which is simplified and plays faster at the cost of some of the unique setting-appropriate mechanics found in the first edition. This adventure is written for version 1.11, but I did use the introductory text from the first edition so that I didn’t have to come up with a backstory on my own (also, it’s frickin’ stellar, so there’s that).
We generated some silly names using the CDS first edition random tables and built some fairly zany characters:
- Xavier the Eagle of Mayhem, an elven mage.
- Thorin Gloompulsar, a dwarven fighter.
- Jerry the Slime of Dread, a human cleric.
We followed the rules as-is (which are pretty general anyway) except for three things that didn’t really change the mechanics of the game, but that do add some context to the power level and goals of the PCs:
- The PCs started at 3rd level for the extra Health. Many of the monsters have 50+ Health, and attack with 2d6 or even 3d6, which is a lot of potential damage.
- We assumed the PCs successfully completed the adventure included with the Crimson Dragon Slayer 1.11 game (Curse of Xakaar Abbey), and thereby gave each player a magic item: the mage got a wand of lightning bolts, the dwarf got a magic sword that added +1 die to his attack rolls, and the cleric got an amulet of protection (providing 4 armor points, which act as damage reduction, simply subtracting 4 from any damage totals dealt to them).
- We used the Experience Level Table from the first edition, since it is “goal-oriented” and thus gives the players motivations to perform specific tasks, regardless of any in-game motivations. Since they successfully gloated a whole bunch, they reached 4th level before even entering the cave (which gave them a bump to their Health), and leveled up once inside the caves.
With characters ready, I prepped the adventure. I’m a notorious over-preparer, so my first read-through of the adventure had me adding a fair amount of notes, but as I quickly realized, very little of it was because the text of the adventure was deficient in any way. Rather, I was simply organizing my own thoughts that were inspired by the great roleplay moments presented in the adventure; I really wanted to capitalize on these great interactions. Among my notes came the following recommendations for you to use or ignore at your leisure:
- I noted the initial attitude (friendly, suspicious, hostile, etc.) of each creature whenever it was presented. When it wasn’t, I just noted that I should roll on the What does the creature want? table.
- I crossed out a few of the random table results for features of the caves, because they were just too weird for me: neither inspiring nor funny, in my (probably narrow) definition of those things.
- I pre-rolled on the environmental table to get some fun results, and spread these out to a few rooms. I only altered about 5 of the chambers this way, but by doing so ahead of time, it gave me plenty of ideas and a few clues I could give the players if they were careful about investigating tunnels before charging headlong into certain doom.
Running the Adventure
The initial adventure setup was a bit wonky in play. I felt like the text tried so hard to make the caves seem so scary that there just didn’t seem like any reason for people to adventure in there: the text constantly spells out this is sure-fire death. There’s a meeting with a person who commits suicide after blaming themselves (due to mind control from one of the creatures in the cave) and then a sequence at the tavern where a guy gets dared to go in the cave, does so, then comes out and dissolves in a puddle of grossness. In my opinion, the setup was lacking for a few reasons:
- There’s not much to do. The players just witness a suicide, then witness a guy go in the cave and come out dead. There’s no player agency in these situations.
- It’s too vague and bleak. There’s no sense that something might be accomplished other than “can we stop this nebulous stuff from happening?”
As it turned out, only a couple changes — one of them already suggested in the text — saved the day.
There’s one rumor the PCs might hear on the road to town: that saints can leave these caves unharmed. The players latched onto what does “saint” mean and with just a little clever discourse form the NPCs in the funeral procession that the party happens upon as they arrive in town, it became clear that “saint” was anyone that might champion the defense of the town and put a stop to the caves. The players read this as “we can get in and get out, assuming we survive” which took away some of the bleakness inherent in the setup of the adventure, and gave them a goal (champion the people of the town).
The other change was that I entirely removed the guy getting dared to go into the cave, and related that as a story that happened to an NPC a few years back, before the priest (who died and is the subject of the funeral procession) came to town. Here’s the cool part: the cleric player immediately tried to heal the guy who committed suicide, and succeeded, so they also had that guy’s rambling, half-remembered story of the caves. This helped them see that there was potentially treasure in the cave, as well as a way out (the guy is mind controlled by Kyr-ann, who has a nice lounge chair in her cave and a treasure chest with a magic sword in it).
Most of that stuff I did on the fly.
And then onto the caves! I used the tables (minus the noted results that didn’t strike my fancy) to describe each chamber, or whenever I felt like my descriptions were becoming repetitive or boring, and I got some cool results: one cave the players just peaked down got a result of a dead body that ended up looking just like one of the characters, so that was a very creepy, fun result! There wasn’t much text to explain the look of the Scoop that sits in the middle of the cave and is the whole reason for this cave system being the way it is, which is weird, but improvising off the picture on the map was fine. The individual encounters were all great: Kyr-ann failed to mind control any PCs and so she made use of the magic sword against them! That’s just one clever example of riffing off the text of the adventure, which is so inspiring and filled with fun twists despite how concise and short it often is.
On Closer Inspection: The Rules
At the end of character creation and throughout running the adventure, my players and I referred back to the Crimson Dragon Slayer 1.11 rules strictly for the damage table, saving throw table, and the rules on magic. The two table references are necessary in the sense that the whole game runs on them, and let me just say that they are something that you can commit to memory after a session of play (maybe less), so that’s a huge plus. They’re both simple, straightforward, and follow a logical progression. So, from a general view, the rules were strong, played fast, and were fun, immediately getting us into the adventure and doing crazy stuff without having to read more than a couple pages.
Judging how many dice players to get to roll in situations that are outside of combat or spellcasting is something that I feel like is better explained in the first edition of Crimson Dragon Slayer, but only slightly more so than version 1.11, and either is good enough for the players and GM to get on the same page after only a couple instances of sussing things out. This bodes poorly for highly mechanics-oriented groups, but that’s already flying in the face of this game’s purpose, given how simple the characters are: this isn’t really meant for system tinkerers and folks that like fussing about this skill point over here and that class ability over there and how it all meshes with the detailed equipment rules. These mechanics are fast, loose, and easy.
The section on magic was problematic for our group, unfortunately, because we kept fighting off our own preconceived notions of the arcane and divine magic split from the many editions of D&D and OSR games. We didn’t feel like we got the guidance we needed to answer some fundamental questions:
- Mage-based magic expressly involves a form of energy drain through blood, but you get more energy from someone else’s blood: does that include sacrificing rats to cast spells? (We decided that if the mage didn’t sacrifice the health himself, then the sacrifice had to come from a willing ally or an unwilling enemy, with enemy being further defined as someone actively opposing the characters.)
- Directly offensive magic is the province of magical wands or similar items: do they deal damage in the same way that an attack does, and how do you determine the difficulty (and thus the number of dice rolled) for spells that originate from a wand? (I gave the players the lightning wand from the adventure included with the base CDS 1.11 One Hour Game rules, which says it deals 3d6 damage, so I had that act as the “attack roll” and determined damage based on how successful that roll was.)
As for cleric magic, beyond a form of “turning” undead and fiends and a statement about healing magic, we don’t get anything in the way of ideas of how it all works.
- Does it follow other magic in that it needs energy drain/blood sacrifice to work? (We said no, because if it doesn’t expressly say so, we’d stay away from making too many assumptions.)
- What miraculous effects are possible (or likely) outside of turning monsters and healing wounds? (We decided that anything on the Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook cleric spell list was fair game as inspiration, though we didn’t really decide on how difficult any rolls might be until it came up in the spur of the moment.)
- Is there a dice roll needed, like for mage spells that are based on how much the spell affects local reality? (We decided that yes there was, so we just used the mage’s spellcasting table.)
- How much damage is healed? (Since we’d already decided to roll a number of dice just like for “arcane” magic based on the difficulty of the spell, healing a flesh wound would be an easy 3d6 roll while someone at death’s door would be a hard 1d6 roll, and then we’d refer to the damage table to determine how many Health points were actually healed on a successful roll.)
None of these were deal breakers by any stretch of the imagination, but they did require some sussing out from the text and some discussion to make sure everything sounded fair and reasonably within the intent of the rules, as far as we could understand them, before play started. We wanted to have fun, and I can’t stress enough that this adventure was a blast, but that extra hurdle also needs to be noted so that players and GMs don’t come into the game with different expectations.
Slaves of Tsathoggua is available as a 16-page PDF and your purchase gets you both full-color and printer-friendly versions.
The layout is super-clean, two-column style. The map is pretty simple in concept and the execution brings some life to it by depicting the Scoop in the central cavern. There are a few pieces of artwork throughout the adventure depicting monsters found in the caves, and it’s mostly old-school style black and white artwork. All of the pieces are evocative and depict the creatures very well in all of their horrific detail.
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[4 of 5 Stars!]