It is the reviewing blitzkrieg season, where we must advance quickly through the catalogue towards Elf-Moscow before the winds of winter bring us low and force upon us a hasty retreat. Monolith from Beyond Time and Space is James Raggi’s (with a single encounter by Kenneth Hite) most ambitious module, where he breaks all the rules and attempts to be cool. The rest is history.
Monolith from beyond time and space is for character levels 0-infinity, which is to say that levels will not truly affect your ability to complete the module. Not a good sign. The cover looks like a huge, corn-covered turd and this is not far from the content.
In the center of a valley that should not be stands a thing that cannot be. those that go before the Monolith do not return the same as they left. Sometimes they do not return at all.
Monolith from Beyond Time and Space is a location based module that will fuck you up, zero question, and inflict upon you horrific changes and a slight possibility of weird reward. Your traditional dungeon solving skills are useless here. I don’t even know if any skills will help your ability to complete this thing. This is then, a scenario tailored to instill in your players a sense of awe and weird and existential dread in the vein of H.P Lovecraft, without any of the trappings of the Lovecrafts opus, as the author explains in his introduction. It is doom and your players cannot win. One must die, and probably more will. A concept that COULD work, but it has problems. I shall explain.
We begin with a series of hooks for placing the module in one’s campaign. As a random encounter, as a fixed location, hired to investigate and in the wake of a prior investigation. Lukewarm but functional. The valley lies within a circle of hills and is larger on the inside then it is on the outside every time you enter it. The last possibility is several AU in size. Neat.
A second random effect will take place once they enter the valley proper. Some of these are neat (no free will means everyone has to obey the commands of one randomly determined player, objects speed up and organic things slow down, cast spells become self-aware), some are stupid (grab a campaign setting from your shelf and if they leave the valley they will be on that world do not rule anything out based on ruleset or setting, stupid, telling people not to use their minds is stupid.). One has the option of killing off your players by starvation with no escape unless they figure out something that is counter-intuitive. Okay then. SOLVE MY NON-PUZZLE BASED ON ANTI-LOGIC OF MY OWN CREATION. Great adventure GM.
You have a chance to get a mutation and they are all shit, and boring (that is to say, they offer only drawbacks without opportunities for interesting gameplay or tradeoffs), with the exception of flipper hands, which are only mostly shit. OOOWEEEEOOOH. Some temporal shenanigans are of course to be expected (time goes backwards or forwards within the monolith) and multiple simultaneous (and devastating defensive) weather effects at the same time are an okay idea. I’d give about 60% of these effects a pass. Some provide useful colouring and atmosphere, some provide gameplay.
The organic things slow down affects combat rules putting the lie to 0-infinity as do several random encounters in the valley. I’m getting a used carsalesman sort of vibe here.
Awright, on to brass tax. To further delight us as we explore the monolith from hell we are generously provided with 7 random encounters, one of which shall occur within the hour, the others to occur on a 1 in d6 rolled each day. Very slowly. The encounters proper are all weird, and vary from the time wasting random travel mist, to a cliff that you have to jump off in order to make it down (you get a hint this time that climbing down will actually give you falling damage so it is not COMPLETELY arbitrary) to a weird group of lotus eaters that subsist on halluciogenic berries and the cooked meat of their own hyper-fertile offspring.
A lot of this shit is window-dressing but what pisses me off is that, once more, there is an encounter with a giant anglerfish with STATS, thereby implying that one needs a certain range of STATS to make the combat meaningful. Also, the Anglerfish will murder things easily, and if you kill it and it appears again and it somehow dies again despite you following the fudging instructions in the adventure the game forbids you from ever GMing again.
Hite’s contribution is a strange sandstone owl statue encounter that cannot be solved logically and will end once the players are either sick of it or everything has been examined. It is also extremely well done from an atmospheric point of view and it involves owl statues and it will probably eventually cause one of your players to kill themselves by gradually replacing their spell slots with owls. I appreciate a good horror set piece but the non-interactivity is kind of a drag, I thought we figured that out by 2000 or so (insert appropriate I can’t believe it’s the current year and people still have remark). Still, nice if guaranteed player death (no one is going to play a spellcaster without spell slots).
Are we there yet? The Monolith fucks everyone up that comes within 30 feet by infecting them with nanoscopic otherworldly creatures that cause the infected to become possessed and invulnerable at night and to kill anything non-possessed within 100 feet. No saving throw. Once this happens, you are forced to complete the adventure (although clever players will use this to their advantage first by sleeping near or within the stronghold of their enemy). On the plus side, you get a free extra experience level.
Ah, and one must brave the dreaded Guardian of the Monolith, a mighty beast that is immune to all damage and deals 1d4 per round. Okay. Any clever tricks and ways of defeating it? Not so sir, t’is immune to everything. So one simply runs full on into the monolith then? Yes. Yes one does. Surely this is the greatest adventure mankind hath ever known. Ah, but will not the player’s levels affect the way this encounter is handled? Yes, yes they will. Brilliance. Unmitigated Roleplaying Brilliance.
The monolith itself is supposed to represent a place beyond Euclidean geometry and is thus navigated solely by imagining an appropriate location. Good if out there concept, but the devil is in the detail my friends. The idea of a noneuclidean space that exists solely as a tubular space stretching on infinitely no matter where you look is a nice idea but it is, ultimately, like the creatures that can be encountered within if one wishes to encounter them, window dressing. I will say it conveys the central premise really well, that this is a place that is utterly beyond normal rules of reality. What then to do. One can merely conceive of a place and one is there. Are these encounters any good?
Uh mixed bag. One can enter one’s own mind and consult everything one has ever experienced. We are supposed to provide maps and transcripts of conversations but information is only retrieved on a natural 20 each turn if one has entered someone else’s brain. Everyone in the monolith is ageless for it is beyond time and space. Stupid and prep-intensive. One can also then leave one’s brain and become discorporated, and if possible, become An Hero by becoming one with the multiverse. Character death in exchange for some sweet ass bennies on your next character. Very long rules for various intra-brain intrusion interactions and fights with mental avatars. Are characters really this shit to eachother?
Weird and atmospheric but useless.
Idea; good. Execution; Terrible.
Ah, but one may also choose to leave at any time, with a catch. One must remain behind and close the exit (I guess one could become AN HERO afterwards so the scenario is not a total loss), to tell the monolith to fuck off. If you try tricks or perhaps one of them dar spells you can trigger the apocalyptic destruction of the world. No telegraphing that part but I guess there is a way of figuring that out.
Idea for scenario resolution; Good, someone needs to die to complete it. Fair enough. Execution; Raggi you are a dick but I will give this one to you.
The monolith may also be used to go anywhere in the multiverse. Very useful. More mindfuckery; You may travel in time within the monolith and thus you can change or attempt to change any action you have already taken. Travelling towards the future results in ageing for the rest, one death and 1d8 levels for one bastard so there will be arguing in case you go back. Okay.
Those desiring adventure are transported to a random adventure on a random page on the shelf of the GM. Stupid and prep heavy. Not a practical suggestion. Moving on.
One is left with mere loot, arguably the best part of the monolith. A horrific alien parasite that can function as a weapon and that lives inside its host, having all the drawbacks one would expect. The other is the head of an evil man whose brain may be eaten for magical lore. Truly bizarre, otherworldly, horrific and probably the best encounter in the monolith. Some nice extra spells too and the odd ability to be gained, always with a terrible drawback. What sells it is the description of Carter Holmes urging the players to eat his brain as he either screams in agony whilst his skull is cracked open or gradually descends into slurring and moaning as you eat more of his brain. What in the actual fuck?!? That is great.
I don’t want to be harsh on this thing even though it sucks because it tried something different. It was ambitious. It has a handful of novel encounters. I think there is a very specific subset of players that would enjoy this adventure given an atmosphere heavy GM capable of doing this justice. For most people it will be useless. There is, ultimately, not enough interaction in this thing to make it worth one’s time and the plethora of interesting weird ideas end up having boring or shitty solutions most of the time. Even upon escaping the monolith most characters will likely be permanently scarred. It would be better, one surmises, if one had never had the adventure at all. But THAT IS THE POINT PRINCE. The point of the adventure is that you didn’t like it and now everything sucks?
Failure, is, however, still failure. Atmosphere and a handful of good encounters do not remove the bane of poor and at times wonky execution, railroading, crazy out there nonsense and encounters that do not work. Bizarre prep-heavy suggestions that have massive problems with implementing them to the fullest extent this adventure suggests.
Railroading. Nonsense results. A lack of reward. A sense of futility.
Pros: Unique & Creative take on a Lovecraft adventure. Atmospheric encounters.
Cons: Lack of player agency. Arbitrary bullshit and player death. Bizarre implementation that is at times wholly impractical.
James Edward Raggi, for your crime of letting your grasp extend your reach, I sentence the Monolith from Beyond Space and Time to 2.5 out of 10 stars (that are most certainly not right). Let Monolith from Beyond Time and Space be banished to the deepest darkness of the intergalactic gulfs and be unleashed only against the most truculent and vexing of players, to remind them that you are GOD and that there is nothing they possess that you cannot take away.
Like Icarus, Hubris has unmade you.