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 stauch traditionalist in the vein of James “8 thousand dollars plz” Malzewinski or the gentlemen from Frog God Games, rather then a 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 designing of 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 is a Raggi module. Of course it has screwjobs. 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) 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. Many of 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 anti-matter. Many tropes 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 of course 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, trapfinding 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.
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 encumberance 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-centric dungeon crawls ah la carté with with 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: Succesful 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. Timekeeping and keeping careful track of equipment is absolutely essential for this thing to work. The above ground area and the 1st floor are alright. The 2nd floor is an excercise 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. Not a horrible module, but I prefer something with more wonder, novelty and excitement and less grind and tedium. 5 out of 10.