Friday, August 12, 2011

Review and Play Report: The Obsidian Sands of Syncrates

The exploits of Team Lucky Cabin Boy

While at Gencon, I also got the chance to run XPR's 2011 Gencon tournament adventure, The Obsidian Sands of Syncrates.  I met the author, Joseph Browning, and ran a group through the adventure at the convention.  So this will be a review, but with a play report from the convention near the bottom.  I don't see as the PDF of  Obsidian Sands is at the usual suspects yet - looks like there's only a pre-order at FRP Games.  I'll update it if I hear from Joseph.  Spoilers will follow.

The Review
The physical adventure is short - 16 pages, comprising 15 rooms and a rousing boss fight.  10 pregens are included.  The adventure is clearly a one-shot, optimized to run in a 4-hour convention slot, or perhaps a single night's play as a side trek in a campaign.

Here's the basic story:  while traveling across the ocean, the group is whisked away to the Otherworld, where they find their ship beached in a god-sized arena (or for you 4ers, a "god-forged colossus-sized arena").  There are indeed two gargantuan statues in the arena - a gladiator and a lion - with ingress into the foot of the gladiator leading to a series of spiral stairs and dungeon rooms scattered throughout the gigantic statue.

The successful group will overcome various tricks and puzzles, unlocking all the areas within the gargantuan warrior and discovering that various thrones located in the hands, feet, and head are actually control stations to animate the statue like a gigantic Voltron and wade into mortal combat with the 300' tall stone lion.  Awesome!

I generate module stats so I can get a sense on size, density, and how much gold/XP a group would get by clearing the module; below is the stat block for Obsidian Sands.  50k gp might seem like a lot, but it's highly likely the group escapes with zero treasure and just some fighting XP.

For levels 5-7

Treasure 52,575 gp (unlikely to be found)
Levels gained  (.5) (unlikely)
Density: 60% (15 rooms)

Alright - so how would I rate this one?  It's a solid 3+ on the Beedometer - the Voltron fight breaks creative ground and does something I've never seen in a dungeon before, putting the players in charge of a 300' earth shaking gladiator robot.  Gaming is about stories and memories, and folks will definitely remember that.  The puzzles and traps feel like a funhouse and are a bit contrived, but the context works because they're set up as divine challenges to weed out the unworthy.  It does take a large group to successfully animate the statue, but if you challenge the dungeon with a large group, the encounters aren't particularly deadly - I might go with a slightly lower powered group in a home game (providing they had plenty of henchmen).  The deadliest encounter is optional; woe befalls any group that dares to camp overnight.  However, the boss fight at the end is totally awesome.  Well worth playing it through to throw down in the arena.

Play Report
So - how'd it work out in actual play?  I had a large group of willing victims test subjects that spent Gencon time trying it out.  The play test group consisted of Greg, Mark, Mike, Bowser, Ralph, and a few couples - Ray & Carol, Graham & Mel, all experienced with 1E; I even saw an OSRIC book at the table.  Nine players, at a long table, in the massive 'Sagamore Ballroom' where hundreds of table top games were happening simultaneously; the background noise was a dull roar.  Yikes.

So here's one trick I use at rowdy home games that worked well at the con - use a party "caller" and make the caller someone at the far end of the long table.  The issue is, if the DM spends too much time speaking to someone close at hand, the volume drops, and everyone else at the table tends to lose the conversation and feel cut off.  Conversing with a party caller at the farthest point forces the DM to project his voice, and you find that everyone in between the DM and the caller gets to hear the descriptions and can engage in the back and forth much easier.

The other thing is to just keep things moving; don't let one player take up too much spot light, try not to break up the group, keep all the players engaged.

Our farthest player was "Bowser", so he was nominated captain of the party's beached ship, and quickly got the action going with a sweep of the arena, a cursory scan of another beached vessel, and the decision to plunge into the open archway of the statue.  Continuing a theme of the weekend (employing entertaining NPC henchmen) we ruled that one of the crew survived the transportation to the Otherworld from the real world, and through various suggestions around the table, we learned that he was the cabin boy, nicknamed Lucky, but his real name was Roger.  So Lucky Roger the cabin boy was inducted to carry the light source, and the group was off.

They took the idea of this being a tournament adventure quite seriously, and made an effort to avoid wasting time with needless searching.  Empty rooms were skipped for later.  Alacrity was the order of the day, and the group quickly motored through many of the rooms, solving puzzles efficiently and dispatching foes effectively.

There was one puzzle room (containing a series of pools) that I thought would prove to be a significant time sink; the Mark the mapper figured out an acrostic phrase from the pool substance names, and the sharp duo of Mel and Graham identified a missing symbol in a sequence of puzzle pieces, so the group ended up solving that one quite quickly once they found the missing piece.  They cleverly used an unseen servant to deal with much of the mess.  I expected it would eat up a lot of time when I read the adventure, but like I said, it was a smart group. None of the other puzzles really stood a chance.

With such an emphasis on business, there weren't as many hijinks as some of the other games, though I did get a kick out of the halfling, who quickly surmised that the big thrones would allow the statue to come alive, and who insisted on climbing into each chair and going through a litany of spoken and mental commands trying to get the statue to operate - each time.

When all was said, they had cleared the module when the four hours were up and we were gearing up for the boss fight.  Optimal deployment of party resources was crucial to controlling the statue effectively to take on the gargantuan lion, and that seemed to be fun figuring out the best way to deploy different PCs to control the statue.   The fight with the lion took an extra half hour after the time slot was over, but most of the folks didn't mind staying to see it all the way through.  It was a close fight, but the Voltron-gladiator defeated the lion and the characters were returned home.

Oh - one other thing - Joseph made the rounds to see how the different groups had done as far as exploration and scoring - these guys scored well and were crowned the winners.  This is why your player groups should generate a quick name - I could call them something like, "Good job, Team Beedo", rather than, "Good job, Team 9-Random-Gencon-Gamers-that-love-1E".  Or "Team Bowser".

But Team Lucky Cabin Boy will have to do.

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