Amid a cluster of fifty-foot sapele trees with bright yellow petals, there is
a contamination. Anyone moving through this area will experience a
bright flash of light, followed by a moment of disorientation. All
characters must save versus Magic. Failure means that there is a moment
of darkness, and when the characters open their eyes again, they see their
own bodies, naked and dead, upon the ground (this only applies to those
who failed their saving throws). If the bodies are cut open, 1d10 grubs are
found inside each carcass; they are 1 hit point monsters that attack for 1
point of damage per round as they tunnel into skin. If fed bits of meat
now and again, they can be kept alive for 1d4 days.
– Rafael “That’s how you write an encounter” Chandler
Pt II of this review covers the sandbox itself, centered around the Plateau. In a fit of due diligence, Chandler stats out the narrow borders around the plateau and gives one quite a lot to do even before ascending the plateau.
The top of the plateau is surrounded by an impenetrable forcefield, the only means of entrance the pit in which the locals dump their annual tribute of silver. Adventurers hoping to find a metropolis’s annual income in silver are left sorely cheated, the robotic servants of the masters of the plateau cart it off to the Temple of Ages that Are Not.
The Plateau begins with a preface because Chandler has actually played a game before and thus understands that his massive behemoth of a Sandbox is not easily absorbed and requires a summary to be referenced quickly. He not only gives us a quick summary of all the factions but also of all the faction locations . In addition, some info about the forcefield and the hexes it passes through, although the map should prove helpful in this case.
This sandbox rules and there are many reasons it rules. Reason number 1: FACTIONS. Each faction is conveniently located in a cardinal direction of the plateau, for ease of reference. Each one has a sort of headquarters (short description in a hex), a leader with a personality, a general troop strength (usually about 80) and a general modus operandi.
You have the pteramen, strange flying human-dino hybrids, the Exiles (savage primitives that draw their ranks from the adventurers that get stuck on the plateau), A nameless Druid of hideous potency lording over a region filled with vast ambulatory carnivorous plants from atop an 800 foot obelisk of red metal, a horde of inteligent slime creatures and their telepathic queen and arguably the robotic guardians of the Temple of Ages that are Not (always hostile). Each of these factions, except for the fucking robots, can be bargained with, and numerous encounters on borders between territory give players a chance to intervene in interfactional conflict. They can be sources of information, quests and equipment/food. Or you could fucking murder them. Whatever.
Reason 2) Finally someone fucking thought about VISIBILITY. Different hexes not only have different rates of exploration but the number of hexes you can see around the one you occupy are also covered. GREAT detail that makes the whole exploration bit stand out.
Reason 3) Interconnectedness and shit going on. Many of the encounters involve the players stumbling into an event in medias res. Sometimes multiple encounters are all related to a larger event happening. In one area you might find an abandoned camp with a trail leading to a Chinese adventurer that has abandoned all material possesions and spends his time cleaning up a shrine belonging to some ancient forest god, or an adventurer that seeks to avenge himself upon his companion who deserted him or whatever. It can be as simple as stumbling upon the trail of a lone surviving adventurer, who can join the team (massive props for that, companions are too seldom given). The point is, almost everyone you meet in this sandbox has their own objectives and goals and whatnot. Especially adventurers always have some shit to do and almost always have some ulterior motive or secret. It never feels static, like they are just there to respond to you. The sandbox feels vibrant and active.
4) There is shit going on in this sandbox. Death cultists are seeking to a hideous evil known as the Glinstening Slur, there’s intra-factional warfare (and also interfactional strife actually), An evil french (OF COURSE) necromancer seeking to destroy Khrimia with an army of Ogbanje (essentially weird voodoo zombies), OMINOUS AS FUCK signs of She-Who-Never-Lives rising from a lake upon the Plateau and a fucking UFO crash site to loot. Encounters fucking reflect that. You can even save a village from a horde of hideous Ogbanje if you are so inclined. You can do shit.
It is also time to call out some bullshit. What happens when She-who-never-lives rises from the lake? GM’s discretion. The power of the Glinstening slur, whose presence will unchain a new emotion within mankind even darker then hate? Gm’s discretion. Henrietta the Necromancer knows many new spells, what do they do? GM’s discretion. In the Cave of Wraiths is a warning scaring people off, what is below etc. etc. I get it that Chandler want’s the GM to feel invested by forcing him to personalize that shit but this is simply annoying. It feels like I am being cheated out of content. I should point out that these details are peripheral so none of these are deal breakers but it does mean more prep work for the GM, figuring out what he has to work out for himself etc. etc.
5) Treasure. Fucking. Finally. Every magical item that you encounter is not from the monstrous manual and is usually either A) double-edged in some way and/or B) perishable.
A Fucking Great Example: The Bloodbow. Enchanted bow with 1d10+10 points. Spend them on your attack roll in advance, as many as you like, bow turns to dust when they are out. BAM. Simple, utilitarian, fun to discover and won’t unbalance your game terribly.
Alongside the usual magical weapons (mostly brought IN by adventurers), there is also alien technology like rayguns or even a semi-functional escape pod to use. Chandler did it better then Carcosa. Alien tech sometimes requires a Tinker check to figure out (failure means the device discharges), is dangerous to use and often damaged (your laser rifle actually emits radiation that will make you sick) and always has a finite number of charges. It’s how Carcosa would have done it, had Mckinney been more focused on getting the gameplay nice and tight.
For some reason the adventure contains several relatively fragile objects that represent the cosmos, destruction or damage to which can result in serious consequences THAT ARE LEFT UP TO THE GM DAMN YOU RAFAEL CHANDLER.
Sometimes the treasure is knowledge, like learning how to train and harness Camerasaurs or pterodons or a safe passage through a region or some other weird shit. Nary a box remains unchecked. Encounter often provide hints about what’s going on or other information, fucking crucial in a game about exploration.
6) WEIRD. A swarm of bees in the shape of a man attacks. Mutated prehistoric animals. a vast, pulsating swathe of ground that mutates all who touch it. All robots guarding the (decidedly 50s sci-fi inspired) Temple of Ages that are Not have some bizarre sort of quirk (repeats nonsensical questions and will shut down if answered, knows your thoughts, thinks its a person named Harland walking through modern city and will behave like that etc.). Ominous signs of great and terrible powers stirring. Gigantic ambulatory carnivorous plants. A book that infects you with a sentient Idea.
The savannah gives way to a mile-wide forest glade full of glowing insects and beautiful people dancing. They are full of joy until the sun goes down, at which point they will take off their faces and reveal their true selves. These creatures are Disquieters, and they abhor sunlight. The entrance to their lair glows in darkness, and the stairs are lined with
phosphorescent runes. Deep underground, the Disquieters keep mewling children in thick silver chains (in order to protect humanity; woe unto those who release the children).
Normally Chandler gives stats and is fairly specific as to numbers, however. Also, while some of this shit might seem random, overal there is a coherency to the creativity, a method and a face validity to the weirdness. The sandbox, by and large, works on its own, admittedly weird, internal logic. There is even a fresh source of Pteramen, Plasmids and exiles so versimilitude, that demon, is appeased.
As to encounter difficulty, by now you should be familiar with the OSR. Encounters run the gamut from being fairly easy for a party of level 1-4 characters to being absolutely murderous if one is not careful (A 15 HD ambulatory pitcher plant or some shit. You will fucking die).
Anyway, the Idea is that once you get onto the plateau you cannot leave since it is surrounded by an impenetrable forcefield (the entrance is one-way only). If one wants to ever leave the Plateau one must venture forth to the centre of the Plateau, where lies the terrible TEMPLE OF THE AGES THAT ARE NOT. Even if you do not enter the plateau right away, there is still a creepy cult to stop and a horde of undead to slay and so on. So much fucking content.
There is little more I can say about this section. There is plenty of variety and the bulk of them run more like encounters then adventure seeds. The only thing I kind of hate is the overuse of simply giving spell names and letting the GM sort out what the fuck it means, a tool best used sparsely, and a similar gripe with some of the fairly major plot-lines. Overall, this is a fairly impressive sandbox. Good shit.
Join me next time for the last part: The Temple of Ages that are Not.