Friday, January 7, 2011

Review: The Grinding Gear

First, a soapbox moment: 
Reviews are an important part of keeping this old school game revival alive.  This stuff isn't in distribution; you can't go to Barnes & Noble and leaf through a rulebook or module.  And there's a lot being published - more than one person can reasonably keep up with.  How to decide what are the quality products?  I have stuff on my (virtual) bookshelf from Goblinoid Games, Faster Monkey, Small Niche Games, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, James Mal's Cursed Chateau, Michael Curtis's Stonehell; eventually I'll get to reviewing it all here.  I'm intrigued by Frog God Games and the modules they're making for Swords & Wizardry; but where are the reviews?  And there are many more publishers putting stuff out that I'm not even familiar with yet.

We need reviewers - in the blogosphere, on the message boards - getting the word out.  Consider this a call to arms.  I'll do my part, starting with playtest reviews of OSR products I've actually used, to be followed by the ones I own, but the vagaries of gaming have kept me from running.

And I want throw a thank you out to the Underdark Gazette, and the many reviewers that post over in the Dragonsfoot.org review forum, without which I wouldn't have discovered many of these products.  (Edit:  Another place I to check out for reviews is Pookie's Reviews from R'lyeh, which tends to feature Cthulhu games, occasionally D&D, and some board games).  If anyone knows other 'review hotspots' for OSR material, please drop a line in the comments - thanks!  <Hops off the soapbox>

This could be you, too...
Okay, on to the Review... And remember, there will be spoilers below!

Next up in my "tour de OSR" is The Grinding Gear, another module by LOTFP author James Edward Raggi IV.  (The first couple of reviews posted here will be LOTFP-heavy, seeing as my players have obliged in my "sandbox of modules' by choosing to pursue plot hooks that have led to his adventures.  It's not favoritism).

The Grinding Gear pdf is 30 pages, full color cover, with a few addendums for maps and DM notes.  I tend to get modules as PDF's; they're cost effective, I'll print the ones I want to run and stick them in a binder for use at the table.  Let's me save a lot of shelf-space by storing everything electronically.  (You can get the pdf at all the usual suspects - RPGNow, Drivethru, IPR).

The setting is an abandoned inn (the eponymous Grinding Gear Inn) and a multi-level dungeon below the locale.  It is a site-based adventure; there's not much explicit story laid out, or elaborate plot hooks; it's an evocative location that provides freedom of exploration if the players choose to engage with the site.  The dungeon levels are low on monsters but filled with traps; a careless group either won't last long or will get frustrated and go somewhere else.  Unlike most trap-filled modules, this one is for low level parties - 1st through 3rd level.

This is not a horror-themed adventure like Tower of the Stargazer or Death Frost Doom; it's a traditional dungeon crawl that reminds one of Tomb of Horrors (but meant to be fair).  It's self-referential to the tropes of D&D; it envisions a world of adventurers, and the creator of the dungeon has set out to make a series of challenges specifically to bedevil D&D-style adventurers, whom he both admires and loathes.

The adventure has a few interesting NPC's, but the dungeon (and it's absent creator) actually become one of the characters.  Much the way Jigsaw taunts victims of his deathtraps in the Saw movies, the creator of the Grinding Gear (Garvin Richrom) leaves enough messages, easter eggs, and tricks for the players that he becomes a character; after getting prodded by Richrom one time too many times, one of my players remarked, "I hate this guy.  Let's finish this thing".  Finishing became a matter of pride.

But here's the biggest reason why I would recommend this adventure:  it does a good job of reinforcing what makes old school D&D different (better) than newer incarnations.  As a trap-filled dungeon with plenty of puzzles, it requires player skill and imagination over reliance on character abilities.  It requires careful resource management.  For the DM, it will require frequent rulings, and resource tracking.  It uses exploration as the adventure paradigm.  These things are the meat and drink of old school Dungeons and Dragons.

What are some issues?  Well, take the whole previous paragraph and flip it around.  Players could get discouraged persevering through a trap-filled location; The Grinding Gear could become a literal grind.  The party should be free to leave; it's up to the DM to provide the initial plot hooks, but after that, leave it up to them.  Not everyone cares for resource management/book-keeping.  And if the players are not observant, they will be punished by a few of the later puzzles; they can make it out, but it won't be easy.

Overall, while this is a high quality adventure, I didn't like this as much as Tower of the Stargazer; I'd rate it 4 skulls out of 5 on the Beedometer.

So how did it work out in actual play? (Spoilers)

Much like Tower of the Stargazer, this adventure makes it hard just to get into the dungeon.  It throws up a big warning - Here there be danger.  My group of players puzzled over the entrance quite a bit (almost dying in the process) before settling on a workable solution to enter safely.  There are two significant TPK moments, and they triggered both of them, only narrowly escaping without deaths.  Once they were past those moments, it mostly became a matter of caution, perseverance, and pride.

I provided two plot hooks in the general campaign setting - they had learned local folklore that a big treasure was supposedly buried under the abandoned inn, and secondly, that a rival group of thieves had already gone there.  They had unfinished business with the thieves, and also decided to go after the treasure themselves.

But the group was ultimately free to leave at any time, and this was important; if the players know a location is filled with deadly traps, and they choose to go there, it's a much different experience than the railroad (C'mon guys, this is what we're playing tonight, so you *have* to do this module).  I felt freedom of choice actually gave my group more impetus to complete the dungeon; I considered it an existential moment for them.

My group also takes excellent notes along the way - I didn't realize just how much minutiae they jotted down until they sailed through a number of the challenges that required observation and recall.

The end is brutal - not to the character's lives, but to the player's psyches.  There is a really good chance the group will miss out on the big payoff at the end; if you're playing by-the-book, most of their experience is tied up in finding the treasure.  Give your group the chance to be awesome; in other words, don't wuss out at the end of The Grinding Gear and hand it to them; let them earn it.  My own group gained part of the treasure, and while they grumbled about making the mistakes they made, there's a great sense of accomplishment in surviving and 'beating' this particular dungeon.

For those inclined, the actual play reports are over on Dragonsfoot:

Grinding Gear Session 1
Grinding Gear Session 2
Grinding Gear Session 3
Grinding Gear Session 4
Grinding Gear Session 5