[Review] Pyramid of the Dragon (OSR LL); The devil is in the details

[Adventure] Pyramid of the Dragon (2010)
Peter C. Spahn (Small Niche Games)
Levels 5-7

Ah Dragons. Without a doubt the most iconic, and thereby overused monster in the entire bestiary of DnD. I can still remember dry-heaving when I pawed through the 3rd edition Dragon Magic, an expansion so aggressively unnecessary it put the Draconomicon to shame. For a long time I thought I was sick of Dragons. It turns out I was sick of mediocre adventures and shitty writing. Case in point, Pyramid of the Dragon by Peter C. Spahn is a fine adventure involving not one but three Dragons and a temple centred around the four elements yet it beats the odds and somehow manages to come out on top. How you ask? It’s all in the details my friends.

This 28-page adventure takes place in the Blood Marsh (I think we figured out a Peter C Spahn naming convention), an area with waters that are stained crimson because of the mineral content that was once the location of ancient Serpent people that ruled the world in an age undreamed of by man (take a drink!). While wandering around, the PCs happen to spot A RED DRAGON AND A BLACK DRAGON FIGHTING AN AERIAL DEATHMATCH. Instant hook. If the PCs are retarded enough to interfere, they get strafed by the Red Dragon Xash the Bloody for their troubles. The adventure pulls a quantum ogre by ensuring the Black Dragon Narratch will die for sure by employing a possible replacement Red Dragon (Xash’s girlfriend) if the characters manage to fucking own Xash the Bloody in mid-aerial dragon murder but the prospect is unlikely in the adventure’s defence. A better solution would have been to have Narratch the Black simply crash somewhere in the swamp, already crippled and have the Red thing fly off but admittedly that option, while avoiding railroadery nonsense is WAAAAY less exciting.

Anyway, it is assumed the characters are somewhat savvy and know that a crashed Black Dragon is worth dollar bills. Even if they are dense as fuck, the adventure gives you an extra carrot by introducing an NPC trader who saw the battle from afar and is now moving towards the carcass and looking to hire some guards. The trader shows up later at the carcass if the PCs get there anyway so no worries. In the meantime they encounter an innocuous miller’s boy as foreshadowing for some body horror later. Spahn is in form and seems to understand such concepts as foreshadowing and narrative flow quite well. His standard adventuring premises are remarkably original, his linear adventures have a suprising amount of freedom and flexibility and I think I once saw him touch a crippled pidgeon and restore it to flight.

Moving through the Blood Marches means one thing! Random Encounters! While the table is remarkably large for what will be at most 20 encounters, I can’t give it the golden star it deserves. This is because the bulk of the encounters are attacks by various forms of wildlife, most of which cannot be intelligently avoided. There are some environmental hazards that exist just to guzzle up hit points or murder you (a Sinkhole) and the most interesting encounter by far is the Characters accidentally stumbling upon a Giant Snail, but only because combat is a terrible option and the encounter relies upon the PC’s innate cowardice to realize that. I’ll give props to the ancient snakeman statue that is used solely as foreshadowing and a safe place to spend the night.

Good writing rears its head when you reach the Dragon Carcass. Turns out this isn’t a video game and one cannot just butcher the carcass of an elephant sized reptile without any training, special equipment or means of transport, necessitating you work together with the Trader, who was actually smart enough to bring a cart, butcher paper, the proper tools etc. etc. It’s the details that matter. As the PCs presumably work together for part of the loot, they learn that the goddamn dragon was from around here and his lair might now be empty and thus loot may be had.  There is an opportunity to gain a great deal of treasure if you are inquisitive and cunning, and a comprehend languages spell that will be useful later on in the adventure is introduced here, but not clearly shoehorned in. Subtle, I like it.

The plot is thickened by the arrival of a Gold Dragon (the third dragon of this piece), who wants a certain magic gem said to be in Black Dragon’s possession because it is apparently a potent weapon in the war against the Red Dragon’s. A great reason for her indirect approach is given: There is a sort of truce between both types of dragons and direct intervention is liable to set off a new round of fucking dragon murder. I like it, it makes sense and reminds me of the Time of Troubles/Adam Troy Castro’s Andrea Cort novels.

The Dragon’s lair proper is in an ancient snakeman pyramid, but before that there is an additional complication that adds much needed spice to the proceedings. A tribe of disgusting frogmen once served the Black Dragon and is now under the command of Xash the Bloody/Xash the Bloody’s Girlfriend. who is looking for some ancient magical supergem (the Blood Gem of Mir) said to be in Black Dragon’s possession. The PC’s can either A) stumble into Xash giving a booming lecture of his own superiority and eating someone to show his displeasure, meanwhile revealing he will send adventurers to perform the search or B) arrive after he has given the speech and thus find themselves the subject of Mistaken Identity. It is even possible to enlist with Xash and get the stone for him (so as to avoid pissing him off). Both options are far more interesting then direct combat so this section adds much.

The dungeon proper is one of the weak points of the adventure. The Dragon lair is connected to the catacombs beneath a snakeman pyramid. The map is symmetrical, the encounters are repeated multiple times (a bound elemental that wants to be freed and might possibly become violent if this is not done), a trap that involves doors closing and something pouring in and some sort of healing room. The goal is to find some fire elemental the Black Dragon has transported to his layer so as to find an object that will unerringly locate the Gemstone (the actual stone fell out of his treasure pouch). The most exciting encounter is with a group of Snake-men skeletons, and even here it’s all kind of pedestrian. The monsters are both appropriate and varied but lack that little extra to push it into the realm of the exceptional and the traps are okay. Explosive swamp gas, green slime that can be mistaken for algae colored water and similar classics. It’s decent just not exceptional.

The last act involves tracking down poor Detric the miller’s boy, by now half mutated into a hideous dragon/human hybrid. What I fucking love is that you can be smart about it and cut the cord of the gem-amulet from his neck and thus end the curse. Alternatively you can fucking murder him, anger the village and cost yourself a retainer. After that the adventure throws another curve-ball. The adventurers that you were impersonating when you met Xash? They show up and they are evil as fuck(the Brotherhood of Wrath)!

One thing I’ve noted thus far about Peter C Spahn’s products is how prevalent adventurers are, something I actually dig. Adventurers are a component in this environment, which makes sense if the world is structured so that adventurers would actually be necessary. It adds some verisimilitude. Also, adventurers are a criminally under-used adversary for PCs, and nothing frightens PCs like other adventurers, because they are the closest thing to the PCs themselves, and PCs are fucking monsters.

Now a bullshit adventure would halfass the backstory and have the adventurers simply attack the PCs from a convoluted ambush equipped with three modules worth of EXACTLY the magic items they need but once again the SUCK fairy is averted and great game design takes over. First thing the adventurers do is lie about who they are, tell them they are on a quest to destroy the Gemstone thing and will offer you a Bag of Holding if you want to trade it (they will do this even if discovered). Second, if refused, they will not just attack willy-nilly but will depart and THEN plan a sophisticated ambush, with individual tactics for each. THIRD, the plot thickens because one of their members is actually an elven spy seeking to avenge the devastation they inflicted upon her people and will strive to covertly warn the PCs (possibly at night, but only if they appear formidable) and co-operate with them to bring them to justice. Add to that some distinct personalities, a hot babe dressed all in red and a few spunky teammates with attitude and this is actually a damn fine encounter.

Even the resolution is not as simple as it appears. Give the gem to the Gold Dragon and risk pissing off Xash the Bloody? Try to keep it yourself and make a whole campaign out of unlocking its secrets? Trade it with Xash for a part of Narratch’s horde?

Add to that the little specific details. Almost nothing in this adventure is generic and by the numbers. The dragon has been fleshed out and looks distinct, the Frogmen have unique tribal customs, all NPCs have at least one detail that makes them standout. The only thing that actually sucks about this adventure is the treasure. It’s just bog standard dnd magical items, gold rings, necklaces that sort of stuff. It’s not terrible but other then the Blood Gem of Mir, essentially a quest item, there is not that much here. Add to that a few monsters that are sort of quasi-new (frogmen, creepy swamp tree that strangles people, swamp-octopus ah la LOTR) and you’ve got a very worthy effort.

Pros: Talky bits. Negotiaty bits. Smart design. Remarkably subtle for such a standard premise. Some good new monsters. Almost everything has colour and feels distinct.
Cons: Standard map (fucking 4 elements?!?). Boring treasure. Dungeon section in the middle is pretty mediocre.

This adventure could have easily sucked. Almost everything it does has been done, and done terribly, a thousand times before. That Spahn gets it right where so many others screw the pooch is a testament to his understanding of what makes an OSR game tick. Recommended. 6.5 out of 10.

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