Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics #2 The Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho

Dungeon Crawl Classics #2 The Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho By Michael Mearls

For 4-6 D20 Level 1 Player Characters

Front Cover Artist: Jim Holloway
Back Cover Artist: Brad McDevitt
Interior Artists: Friedrich Haas, Brad McDevitt, Marks Parsons
Cartographer: Matt Snyder

If you are planning on playing in this adventure STOP READING NOW! - This is your only warning.

This isn't a first level adventure. It really, really isn't.

This is not an adventure for an inexperienced DM either. There are a number of balls that come into play past the 1st level of this dungeon crawl and they will have a DM quiet busy keeping them in the air if used as written.

I have a problem with adventures where first level characters are supposed to save the world. It just doesn't make sense to me so I have a very hard time relating the overall plot to a first level adventure. In many ways it reminds me of the much higher level TSR adventure WG4 Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun with a tiny hint of Judges Guild's Dark Tower. But the plot itself is not much of a problem and even elder outer gods from beyond this dimension need to start somewhere so I am just being picky.

The problems I have start immediately. The players arrive in the frontier hamlet of Hadler's Gap. There is no map of the town or area around the town and adventure. DMs are encouraged to develop Hadler's Gap or use the village from other DCC adventures. One small paragraph provides all the details of the players base of operations that the DM is going to get. There are a few adventure hooks provided, but this is not a pick up and play module by any means. Instead a page and a half is devoted to text describing the rather grandiose background of Tsathzar Rho and the Outer Gods and a large half-page illustration that seems to depict nothing the players are going to encounter in this dungeon, and a blank area lacking text or illustration that could have been used for village map or some description.

The players immediately encounter an insane 4HD ogre, this could be a very brief adventure for the group especially since one of the adventure hooks has the players taking refuge from a storm inside the ogre's cave. Roll up characters, fight battle with monster that can kill the characters with one shot, then roll up more characters. The rest of the 1st dungeon level offers nothing as challenging or instantly lethal. The most potentially unbalancing item is an item that may be worth 1000 to 2000 gold. A lot to hand out to first level characters but perhaps a way to force level advancement. Easy to remove or even reward at a later date, but a bit of a campaign monkey wrench for an inexperienced DM to handle.

It is the dungeons 2nd and 3rd levels that are my greater concerns.

A side note here about the maps. I have the 2nd printing of this module. The maps show some character and remind me of old TSR maps that might have graced the inside cover of the D series. Unfortunately my printing has the level 2 and 3 maps mislabeled. Nothing that causes more than a moments confusion but I am surprised it wasn't caught during playtesting.

The player characters enter the 2nd level and encounter a 4HD monster... wait, this has happened before, only this 4HD monster can both web and poison the PCs as well. I suspect that by the 2nd level of the dungeon the PCs are meant to be second level themselves. With AD&D rules I am not sure how they this would be managed but I am doubtful that even 3e rules would prepare raise them high enough at this point. This isn't merely a monster with more HP, this is a monster with much greater abilities. This is damaging poison so the monster's attacks are more deadly, and the ability to web players effectively removes them from the combat. Played fairly, without plot device or dumbing down the monster, I can't see four to six first level PCs all surviving this encounter. Push them to second level and this is still an instantly lethal situation.

Once past this first monster there is a side excursion, two ghouls which individually should challenge the party, and a 4d12 HD ghast, which should probably slaughter the party.

From this point on things only get worse for the PCs. Kobold snipers while the PCs try to cross 100+ feet of water, elite kobold troops (I blame Tucker and that old Dragon article), and in large numbers. Eight kobolds versus six players, not a problem, but the next batch of twelve kobolds split between a pinning element and crossbows should prove exceptionally deadly. There is a single approach and no apparent cover.

And past this point the headache for the DM truly begins (the strange effect of the vault crossing from the pages of the module to the DMs dining room). Each hour of game time each player must save to keep themselves from falling under the strange effects or be affected by the effects resonating effectiveness. Once they fail their saving throws the results are going to be a monumental task of index cards and flavor text, hallucinatory battles and back tracking. The adventure talks about nightmares for the players on the 3rd level, but for the DM they have already begun and for the rest of this adventure they are now, "in effect."

Wait, isn't this supposed to be a first level adventure? Ghouls, ghasts, Tucker's Fallschirmjager kobolds and now Fear and Loathing in the Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho. Each combat encounter from here on in seems to be another combined arms squad of kobolds. Two more twelve kobold units, and two smaller groups with officer types this time. The PCs could use a few grenades, light machine guns and some meds to help with the hallucinations.

Unfortunately the 3rd level is more of the same but with only one twelve kobold death squad present. The final encounter is fairly impossible.

I find this to be a greatly imbalanced adventure but not a terrible one. It isn't for an inexperienced DM or group of players and I cannot see how to run it for first level players. It needs work. Many of the cumbersome mechanics for the vault's strange effects need to be tuned to match the DMs style of play. The characters will need a base of operations. The town needs detailing. I can't see how to easily lower the challenges to make this first level, but many will need to be beefed up to challenge a higher level party.

This adventure is a major fix-er-up-er. Good ideas, good possibilities for expansion, but not something I would want to run as-is for the level recommended.

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