The Quest for the Nanorien Stones (1982)
Jim Gallagher & Steve Morrison (Mayfair Games)
Levels 7 – 10
In the OSR we have a tendency to look to the past for guidance. The bulk of the movement is centered around the idea that there were qualities in the olden games that the modern, slicker, sexier and more codified versions have failed to capture. With that sentiment comes a certain veneration for the modules of yesteryear: Caverns of Thracia, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and so on. Today we look at a relatively obscure product for the Role Aids line of 3rd party AD&D 1e adventures called The Quest for the Nanorien Stones to remind us that while much was grand in ye olden days, not all that glittered was made of gold.
Nanorien stones by Jim Gallagher & Steve Morrison is a 28-page adventure for characters of level 7-10 involving trips to 4 different elemental planes of Fire, Water, Air and Earth to find four magical macguffin stones. Yes, it’s that kind of an adventure! Its not terrible and you can tell it tries but the plot is contrived and a big part of the adventure is just boring combat. The writing is sparse and provides only the barest essentials to a point where it doesn’t inspire the type of dream-like wonder and awe a plane-travelling adventure should inspire.
The adventure begins with a page of largely useless backstory in the shape of a short story. Eughh. 10 years ago a band of evil mercenaries attacked the royal family for unspecified reasons. The attack failed but their leader cursed the royal family with a hideous wasting sickness before perishing. With a cure not forthcoming, the people of the kingdom instead put their royal family into a sort of magical stasis while they tried to figure out a way to deal with the curse. Now they have a cure but the magical stasis can only be broken by the use of a rare macguffin known as a Nanorien stone. Very fucking annoying so far.
Then comes the only awesome part; Sir Gawaine, Kings-champion, has already passed through the Gate of Neveryon in search of the Nanorien Stones. He returns on his pegasus mount, mortally wounded and burnt to a crisp. He leaves a map with vague clues as to the location for each stone on each of the elemental planes after he dies, for “Others come now for Cloudwalker and me.” Then he is LITERALLY CARRIED INTO HEAVEN BY A GOD AND AN ESCORT OF TWENTY HOT BABES ON PEGASI. One hell of an exit. Anyway, our brave heroes must now find the cure for the stasis thing*. So the plot is convoluted and much of it is useless, but it boils down to THOU MUST FINDETH THE FOUR MACGUFFIN STONES.
The adventure is set up so that our brave heroes go through the Gate of Neveryon, a mysterious artifact that the adventure REALLY does not want you to break by making it immune to nearly all magic and weapons of +4 or below. Fine whatever.
Each time they obtain a Neveryon stone and the pile of treasure that is conveniently strewn around it, it automatically teleports them to the next elemental plane (convenient no?), consuming a magical item in the process (the order is provided, from potions to main weapons, so the dickishness of this is mitigated somewhat). The Stones are connected (mightily convenient that there are just enough stones to help every member of the royal family ey?) so you can use each stone as a sort of compass on your scavenger hunt for the next stone.
Players can decide to travel from plane to plane in the conventional fashion if they are stubborn and feel that 2 weeks of random encounters every 8 hours consisting of monster manual entries that are mostly just hostile is a good way to spend a session. Some procedures such as the particulars and command words of some of the magic items and other minor details are written out before the adventure begins, as well as a number of houserules: all monsters have 2/3 max hp, critical hits mean double damage, a fumble means you might hit one of your buddies.
The first good convention is added. Players that are not with the main group when they find the Nanorien Stone are left behind. Rather then slogging behind our big dumb heroes it is possible to make a deal with an elemental creature of similar alignment to be gated to the location of the party in exchange for magic items (or 10 years of servitude if you have nothing else) as a penalty for fucking up without making the game unplayable being lenient of outright incompetence, a mortal GM’s sin.
Re: Layout. The module suffers from unclear presentation. Information is not always doled out in a logical fashion meaning it is sometimes necessary to backtrack in case you read over an important point. On the plus side, there is a lot of monster related oldschool art, which gives it that classic feel. The maps are unclear and very small, but ultimately serviceable.
The rules for the planes are based on the old manual of the planes so that means such enjoyable aspects as banned spell lists, magical items being less potent in that plane if they fail a save vs lightning (a new rule I think?). No other mention is made of the effects of wandering around on the planes, and such considerations as survival on the planes of water, air and fire. Only the plane of fire mentions anything such as taking damage for those lacking adequate precautions. These strange, partial planar rules are confusing and mention just what part of the Manual of the Planes is in use would have been helpful.
Section I: Earth
The Earth section takes place in what I think is a large chasm (the description of the place is vague at times). A series of branching paths run through the chasm with the temple at its heart. Distances are provided and encounters take place in marked regions. The more distance PCs cross, the more likely they are to be struck by falling rocks from constant earthquakes. The text points out that some branching paths have chasms that must be navigated through some other fashion but it is not clearly indicated from the map what intersections may be safely navigated and which ones are perilous.
Encounters with any of the canyon’s Guardians tend to be straight up fights with vaguely earth themed monsters such as hydras, stone giants, earth elementals and (if you take too fucking long), an ancient Green Dragon. The one exception is a Guardian Naga that must be convinced of the nobility of the party’s quest via roleplaying (there’s also a random encounter involving Elementals asking for a gp toll to pass a chasm which is technically not a straight combat encounter). The temple is just a single room with a set piece fight involving animated statues of warriors and doors that turn out to have been Carnivorous Amoebae all along what?!? Some implied backstory or more then lip-service dedication to the Earth theme would have been helpful here. Anyway, after you find the OBVIOUS location of the first stone and its convenient stockpile of magical items, including 4 cloaks of the manta ray and a helmet of underwater action and a locator wand that only works whilst immersed in water, you set a course for the next location. Random encounters in this section are just monster entries. Bleh.
Section II: Water
The Water section is just a big pile of water. The locator points you to the center of the plane (a section of water), but if you simply must be tiresome you can ‘explore’ this giant ocean of nothing and wander into a ‘swampy ocean’ section as well as a ‘thick fog’ section. Entering the swamp section might mean you might fall unconscious and fucking die so good luck with that. It seems the swamp section is actually above water in a plane where there is water everywhere which is confusing but whatever. I did like it that there is mention of damage to the locator wand meaning it will very likely malfunction and misdirect the party, instead of ceasing to function altogether.
The encounters proper here a bit better then the earth section. Three ghosts warn you to turn back as you set out to the swamp section (Mist Giants attack shortly afterward). Tritons that appear as though the GM has merely rolled a random encounter but that are instead purposefully sent (By whom?) to capture or delay the party. That’s fucking meta. Illusionary dolphins tell the party of a giant octopus nearby. It is bullshit and there is no octopus (2 hours of your time fucker). The treasure is located in a fragile crystal cube guarded by 4 empowered water elementals. A better encounter then the previous ones, duking it out with the water elementals is actually a really shit idea and you’d be better of just taking the hits, shattering the cube and getting the fuck out of dodge. The treasure includes a fucking artifact, the Orb of the Wyrm Lords, which is just given powers and nothing else.
Section III: Fire.
Next up is the plane of fire! A land of dust and fire and flame. Not the best place for human habitation. Fortunately, one would say contrivedly so, some kind soul has taken the effort of laying some paths through the physical representation of fire and heat so travelers can just walk those and be protected. Why equip the PCs with all those precautions if you are going to pull shit like this?
One strange addition to planar mechanics is kind of cool. On the elemental plane of fire time flickers and weaves, meaning that at times you will be hasted with respect to another party or vice versa. A cool idea that adds to the otherworldly place of the place.
Features on the place of fire besides the sanctuary of the Nanorien Stone include volcanoes and the City of Brass in the starlike heart of the plane of Fire. No description of its nature, but if you go there you get tortured for a couple of days before they are kind enough to drop you off in front of the sanctuary with half hit points remaining and all your mundane equipment. Uh…why?
Encounters here are the worst. Just straight up combat with elementals, a night hag, a zombie that pretends to be a corpse before rearing up, a warrior that refuses to let you pass unless you beat the shit out of him and so on. Credit where it is due, not every random encounter table, no matter how sparse, has Kakatal, Moorcockian elemental lord of fire on it. He even talks to the pcs, though he will refuse to help them for any reason. A cool idea but there is so little to work with here. So many of the encounters are just stats.
The temple proper is a bunch of reflective pillars and a smackdown with a unique cat-demon but bleeeh. Hanging out at the fire temple for too long means fire elementals show up to take you away. The path to the temple is a series of stone pillars that must be jumped, save dex or you fall into chasms filled with infinite firesnakes or something whatever.
Section IV: Air.
The plane of air is really boring but also a giant hexmap of emptiness and that also means there is less tedium to describe!!! If the players want to find the sanctum they must “ask the winds,” which seems to be about the only way to go about it since everything else seems to be hostile.
Within the plane of air float about two dozen sanctums of various air related deities, from the canon DnD list like Yan-C-Bin, the Queen of Air Elementals, Indra and even Hastur. That sounds really fucking wild! Unfortunately the sanctums are not described and all the deities just respond to characters entering their hex by using some means or another to tell them to fuck off, be it monsters, lightning or some other shit (with the exception of Rudra, who is not home, and Heng, who just rains on them). This is probably what WOULD happen if you come calling to the houses of the gods in search of a stupid magic rock and pushing this just a bit farther would have made for a great farce, as it is, its just an idea that could work but was never expanded upon.
The sanctum is among the more interesting of the ones described so far. A great dome covered with illusionary crystal structures that are actually astral projection made by “an earth elemental who is curious about the party.” Bereft of ANY further explanation, such as who this thing is or where it is, we soldier on. The dome can be breached, but this requires considerable force and it will release trapped ghosts if attacked (don’t ask okay it’s just trapped ghosts). If your players have played DnD before, you could alternatively just find the secret entrance, which is hidden by illusions.
Once inside the dome you must beat the shit out of a naga and two iron cobras (which are given intelligent tactics credit where it is due) before getting your grubby paws on the stones and some treasure. A creature known as the Hound of Ossar will appear to pronounce a curse on anyone who didn’t play according to his alignment, giving them a penalty for the final showdown. After the party collects the treasure that is their due and sullenly awaits transportation to their home plane for a debriefing, hot coffee and a pat on the back, they receive an unwelcome suprise and are instead transported to Limbo for an ill-considered and redundant final act!
Section V: LIMBO?!?
The characters arrive on the featureless grey plain of Limbo (an apt metaphor for the writing in this adventure).
A parapet suddenly appears out of thin air. Just a parapet. I think the authors may have erroneously concluded it was some sort of structure since the demon seems to be inside of it. Remember that mercenary attack on the king all those years ago that everyone totally forgot about? Well turns out it was Tetraxol, Demon of Shadows that was the perp. And he would have gotten away with it too! I think. It’s not really spelled out. Anyway, he sends his skeleton warriors, archers and mages and will run at the first sign of trouble. The writing gets better here. The sockets of the axe-wielding skeletons still glow with the berserker fury they held in life and the robed skeleton wizards are ‘mages of a long dead empire.’ At least that is something. After the players defeat Tetraxol, the quest is now over. No mention of a reward or xp because fuck you.
Credit where it is due. The adventure gives you a series of sample characters for tournament games and they are perfectly serviceable. Most of them have backstories related to the attack that took place a decade ago, one is a CG cleric-sage that is hilariously unqualified (Wis 9, Lvl 4), gets roped into the adventure for bragging about his overwhelming competence and probably best suited as a means of showing the GM’s displeasure to unruly players. I’m actually liking this approach to starting characters. You get a sentence of character traits, a paragraph of backstory linking you with the adventure and some characters even have nonstandard unique abilities (one gets a +1 to hit with maces and one is immune to fear!).
Uh what else. Treasure is boring because it is limited to book items for the most part (a shield plus 3 that breaks if the enemy rolls 15 or higher being one of the few exceptions, along with the dragon orb). Treasure is placed randomly, without thought or context.
Same with the bestiary. The adventure adds quite a bit of new monsters but beyond being visibly interesting they don’t have any interesting abilities or characteristics. Swamp, heat, wind and dust elementals. A giant blue cyclopean underwater zombie with a stun/blind ray eye (okay that one is fucking cool). A skeleton snake. A tripus (a Xorn with the serial numbers filed off, presumably to avoid lawsuits). It all seems kind of obvious.
Pros: Lots of unique monsters. Some of the elemental set-pieces aren’t terrible. Planar adventure woooo hoo. Good starting characters.
Cons: Bland writing. Terseness to the point of being deliberately obscure. Hackfest. Good ideas aren’t executed properly. Contrived. Not much room for subtlety, planning, trickery or other forms of roleplaying.
Man this one hurts. Planar adventuring always puts me in mind of the non-sucky stories of Michael Moorcock’s eternal champion. That’s the vibe these things should be aiming for. Psychedelic trips into otherworldly realms. Meetings with Gods and Demon princes and weirdness. As it is you are left with a very long slog involving random encounters, boring treasure, endless combat with arbitrary challenges and very little to break up the monotony.
Even a tournament game that completely eschews any sort of immersion should at least strive for an adventure that provides an interesting challenge on the tactical and strategic level. You are left with a contrived module, an arbitrary and largely irrelevant plot, a set-piece battle at the end and very little beyond an endless series of combats with various monster manual entries to string it all together. Planar adventuring is great in theory but the practice grants mixed results, apparently. What was a pretty big deal in 1982 can’t help but bore an audience that is jaded to the adventuring practice. Recommended only for Role Aids completionists. 3,5 out of 10.
* Obligatory fantasy reference. Beyond sleeping beauty, the use of magical stasis to delay the onset of a sorcerous curse is somewhat reminiscent of the plot of David Edding’s Elenium trilogy, though it should be noted this adventure was published prior to that.