PrinceofNothingReviews; The Grinding Gear (Loftp); Something something something Tomb of Horrors

The Grinding Gear (2009)

James Raggi IV (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Levels 1 – 4

Grinding Gear by the ever-prolific James Edward Raggi IV is about as close to a traditional dungeon crawl/tournament module as Lamentations of the Flame Princess ever gets (and I predict will get), surpassing Hammers of the God in traditionality. In an ironic twist, it surpasses most (certainly not all) of the newer Raggi works in quality. I still maintain that Raggi may have missed his calling as a an OSR Luddite, a staunch traditionalist in the vein of James “eight thousand dollars plz” Malzewinski or the gentlemen from Frog God Games, rather then the radical, heretic and apostate in the vein of Zak, Kowalski or Mckinney. There is an undeniable craftsmanship to the Raggi dungeon; a robust efficiency coupled with an almost sadistic ingenuity in the design of its traps and encounters that borders on the antagonistic but never quite crosses the line. Grinding Gear represents another success on this front.

Grinding Gear can be dumped into any campaign without requiring major modifications though you might have to replace the goblins with humans for a contemporary  Loftp conversion. If your majesty can stomach antagonists drawn straight from the AD&D monstrous manual what you have is an almost platonic take on the tomb/dungeon crawl.

Grinding Gear is an adventure for 3-8 characters of levels 1-4. You could not get a more traditional D&D experience if you ran Tomb of Horrors. The Grinding Gear obviously draws inspiration from that venerable and much maligned tournament module, but largely manages to avoid the arbitrary lethality and multiple screwjobs of said module. This is of course, not to say that Grinding Gear has no screwjobs. It’s a Raggi module. Of course it has screw-jobs. They are, however, not random. There is a twisted logic to some of the more devious traps that CAN be figured out, just not easily.

The slightly meta-gamey plot behind the Grinding Gear is that an architect with both an admiration and an intense hatred for adventurers (they ran off with his daughter and she died as a result) and an improbable breadth of knowledge concerning both the physical sciences and architecture designed his tomb to both punish the foolish and reward the worthy. The adventure reflects these sentiments almost perfectly.

The adventure is best divided into two segments; the above ground segment with its lukewarm random encounter tables (some token interaction, they are not the worst but they are not particularly inspiring either), its abandoned inn filled with clues that are absolutely vital to the adventure (hope your players are obsessive note takers), excellent and sinister foreshadowing (e.g bloodied manacles and knives, a tiny copper cage with a dead bird connected to a dynamo hinting at later traps etc. etc.) and a single death trap involving the secret entrance to the dungeon proper; a sleep gas trap that is foreshadowed well in advance (if your players don’t catch something is awry they are idiots) and 52 Stirges. This section is very good in setting things up and foreshadowing them.

The Grinding Gear proper starts when players enter the tomb of Garvin Richrom. The many comparisons that were drawn between Tomb of Horrors and this module are not unwarranted. Grinding Gear is Tomb of Horrors light. The puzzles are often screwjobs that play with the player’s expectations (i.e one room gives you a riddle and an organ but the door is not actually locked and solving it will just fuck the players over, a room with a series of traps that risk damaging an origami structure and one of the players will be asked to make a split second decision to save it, which will be useless and can cause death, a secret passage that goes nowhere and exists solely to waste precious time and food supplies etc, fake treasure map that just lies etc.). Where it differentiates itself from Tomb of Horrors is that Tomb of Horrors is a sort of master test for careful adventurers and Grinding Gears in places becomes a sort of Adventurers kryptonite. Many tropes and staples of dungeon design are turned against the players. It really feels like a dungeon designed by a sadistic bastard that understands the mindset of the adventurer to an obsessive degree.

Anyway, the random encounters on the first level are pretty lame (bog standard slimes, rats and giant spiders), though actual set piece encounters are alright. Rival adventuring party, creatures in pits that are hard to destroy (there is a trap to set these creatures free, a way to result in multiple character deaths if you follow the level recommendations) and gay ooze falling from the ceiling and gay ghouls. So far so ho hum. The solid part is of course the puzzling, trap finding and secret door detecting. In a fit of inexplicable fairness, Raggi even includes an early poison trap that does little more then turn one’s hand blue, again an excellent bit of foreshadowing that is sure to put the players on guard for what is coming.

I have muttered at length that Grinding Gear is hard but I will give it credit for being, on the whole, fair. It telegraphs many of its punches far in advance, albeit it very subtly so that the more brash and incautious players will not pick up on this. The second and final level of the dungeon is where it gets interesting. The encumbrance and bookkeeping rules that have been kept track of throughout the adventure now become matters of life and death. The players are trapped on the second level (virtually unavoidable), and must find a way out, searching for hidden doors and bypassing many traps and time wasting shenanigans before their food and torches run out.

I have mixed feelings about this section. I admire the attempt to create a tense and dangerous situation without relying overmuch on the daemon known as combat but at the same time, the various duds and dead ends meant to waste time and thus precious resources might be frustrating to some players. Anyone actually making it to the end has a pretty big chance of ruining most of the treasure if they are not smart and careful, but no one will leave the tomb entirely empty handed (a unique magic sword, about on par with what you find in magazines or on blogs, but certainly more interesting then the rest of the by the book treasures (exception; crystal tiger that is extremely fragile)). A series of notes explaining the how and why behind each location serves only to highlight the convolution, instead of mitigating it.

As a spiritual successor and homage to Tomb of Horrors or a few evenings of fun for experienced adventurers Grinding Gear probably suffices. It does not REMAKE DND and if you dislike slow-paced puzzle-ish dungeon crawls ah la carté with a minimum of fluff and the occasional bullshit curveball you will hate this but if dungeon crawling is your thing I suspect The Grinding Gear will be a memorable experience about on par with a solid Dungeon Magazine adventure. For people looking for that, this is that.

Pros: Successful take on the “thinking man’s module.” Rewards careful and systematic play. Occasionally fun traps. Good foreshadowing.
Cons: Requires meticulous timekeeping to be effective. Might be boring to some players. Bog standard monsters. Occasional screwjobs.

Final Verdict; Mediocrity is less memorable then disasterous failure. This is a solid adventure but in no way exceptional. A competent fascimile and a callback to the olden days. Buy if you like tough puzzle/dungeon crawls and you would like to see one executed with a rigor and efficiency that is almost platonic. Avoid if you like your adventures with a little more wonder and excitement and a little less SAW. Six dollars on drivethru is not an unreasonable price. 6.5 out of 10.

Actual Play Verdict: The clues take too long to build up and a single missed clue essentially lands you up shit creek without a paddle. The 2nd floor of the dungeon is boring and shitty and requires trial and error. As predicted, timekeeping and equipment tracking is absolutely essential for this thing to work. The above ground area and the 1st floor are fun. The 2nd floor is an exercise in tedium and frustration. Not a horrible adventure but the buildup for the clues is too long and multiple sessions make it hard to recall certain vague details revealed early on if at all. Not a horrible module, but I prefer something with more wonder, novelty and excitement and less grind and tedium. 5 out of 10.


5 thoughts on “PrinceofNothingReviews; The Grinding Gear (Loftp); Something something something Tomb of Horrors

  1. Ran this after reading your review for it. Foolishly took the author’s advice and marathoned the whole thing in one 8 hour session. Ended up being deeply boring and players were unimpressed by all the traps & puzzles (what traps & puzzles?) I have yet to meet a player who actually enjoys searching for secret doors that are on a dungeon’s main path (the vast majority of the adventure’s “puzzles” being nothing but finding hidden doors or levers.)

    The drawn-out ending sequence proved particularly dull as success is predicated on either (1) being terribly observant and gathering all the clues or (2) having acquired the extra 87 rations from the rival adventuring party and thereby having plenty of time to brute force the puzzles. My players had the rations, at which point we all would have been better off hand-waving the entire second level of the dungeon & just telling them they won.

    Ironically my players’ boorish, thieving approach to the dungeon served them extremely well. They completely passed by two of the death-trap rooms not on the main path & having missed all clues relating to the deadly organ they simply walked past it.

    The only two interesting bits of this dungeon were:
    – the ooze trapped in a valuable looking crystal pit (players attempting to break off & plunder some of the crystal are rewarded with the ooze escaping up the cracked crystal)
    – the gelatinous cube encounter that occurs just after the spring-trapped staircase, nothing quite brings a smile to a DM’s face like a cowardly elven rogue being catapulted directly into the gelatinous cube he’s attempted to run away from

    Brief anecdote: my players bizarrely recalled the exact number of guest rooms (question 3) but had never encountered the wife’s name (question 1). They at first started with B for BITCH to no avail, before figuring they’d better start trying with A instead. Beyond that they made a confounding series of exactly correct guesses, going from A to ANNA to ANNABELLE to ANNABELMA (wtf?) and finally to ANNABELMARIE. All in all they were electrocuted only three times despite having literally no idea what the name was going to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome Jay Money!

      Interesting. I’m sad to hear t’was not to your taste.

      Marathoning it for 8 hours straight is something I should have remarked on upon. My players are generally okay with exploration-focused dungeon crawling but exploration for 8 hours without social encounters to break up the monotony is pretty brutal.


      Yeah with 87 rations the adventure becomes much easier, and the removal of a ticking clock element would render the whole an excercise in tedium. I guess the torches would still function as a timer but I see your point.


      What of the inn and its environs?


      1. Thanks for the greet, started reading a couple of months ago. I’m especially fond of your colorful prose.

        re: torches, we more or less run 5E (with 3d6 in-order chargen & rolling of all hit dice) which despicably gives darkvision to all non-humans. Probably worth taking that away to produce the proper OSR feel. I do otherwise run the monsters OSR style in lieu of 5E’s blobs of hit points.

        Unfortunately the main set piece outside (the sleep-gas trapped statue + Stirges) didn’t pay off for us. The party considered the statue & dead bodies surrounding it to be a bad omen & so investigated everything else first with considerable care. One player went up into the attic while the others waited at the ladder for the all-clear, & the one player up top won initiative vs. the Stirges. At that point it was fairly trivial for him to jump down & for the party to slay d6 Stirges flying down the hole each round. Three people would later investigate the statue & while two succumbed to the sleeping gas, the threat of Stirges had been largely removed by butchering the main nest (“but some [Stirges come] from the general surroundings” not withstanding.)

        The bookshelf labeled “The Feeding and Care of Dragons” is of course good fun to set players on edge.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Quick question, have you checked out any of the other Loftp works I covered and if not, why on earth have you started with Grinding Gear when Tower of the Imprisoned Jerk Wizard and Tomb of Dwarf Hitler received evaluations of superior merit!?!


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