Beneath Two Suns (1986)
Troy Denning (Mayfair Games)
Levels 6 – 8
Even the best concepts can be executed terribly. Picture the following: Troy Denning of Dark Sun fame writes a Sword & Planet module for the Role Aids series where the characters are transported to the ancient city of Zenicce on the world of Kregen (based on the works of Kenneth Bulmer) and become embroiled in a tangled plot of treachery and murder as rival houses battle over control of the city. Alien creatures, strange technologies galore! Fight for who gets hold of the space princess Natema Cydones!
The setting, while sparse, is described in sufficient detail to give you the feel of the place. A Venice type city controlled by Noble Houses with alien slaves, florentine fighting and no arcane magic (any magic items you find during the adventure (rings and melee weapons) are instead products of ancient, long-lost technology). The sample PCs are historical figures consisting mostly of fighting men like Musketeers, A Mongol Warrior, a Knight, A Centurion and so on. Magic is entirely unknown on Kregen and enemies of 1 – 4 HD must make a morale check or flee at once if it is used. This thing had all the ingredients for an unconventional but kickass adventure.
I dig the premise and the way the adventure starts you off as slaves. For months you have been toiling in a fugue, transported without your equipment an alien world, until an opportunity comes along to escape. You are immediately given the opportunity of joining up with House Cydones or striking out to make your own fortune.
Where the adventure fucking tanks is through its structure. Instead of making what should be a sandbox with a possible event table and some NPCs with conflicting agendas, the adventure opts to go for a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure Encounter Flowchart from hell format. A series of linear encounters connected, with different paths depending on a few critical decisions. All this convoluted structure makes it hard to figure out what the fuck is going on while rendering the bulk of the game a boring mess, which is only exacerbated by having almost all the scripted encounters be straight up combat. Why constrain DnD to such a limited format? The bulk of the encounters are just straight up hack-fests with House retainers, asssassins or Chuliks (Sword and Planet Orcs).
The adventure deigns to give a map of the city with a number of locations that are ALMOST like dungeons but again there is virtually no interactivity beyond just straight up murder 99% of the time. You encounter a sort of two-legged hippo creatures that know a single phrase of the common dialect but that can be persuaded to lead the characters to a thieves hideout that by then contains the princess Natema. Another one gives you the opportunity to disguise yourself as a priest of … Hrunchuck or something. The rest is straightup combat without even the tactical elements that can make combat exciting.
Other then the scripted events tied to certain locations on the map, there are a sparse few number of encounters that trigger when characters enter certain areas…say, the Temple Gardens or the Crier’s Tower. While some of these are at the very least noteworthy (when was the last time you encountered the 24th level thief in charge of the Thieves Guild?) and there are plenty of unique monsters,* they all attack on sight, making the module feel stale and boring. It’s just a hackfest, punctuated by the odd betrayal, punctuated by more hacking.
The faction play and the betrayals should be one of the strong points of the module but this is undermined by the scripted nature of the interactions. Any time the characters interact with one of the Noble Houses they must usually accept some sort of bargain or get thrown in the dungeons. The codification of what should be a mostly freeform module is a damned shame. There is a GREAT part in the beginning where they go over a small glossary of the vocabulary on Kregen and a section in the beginning where not figuring out the etiquette can get you into trouble but the number of opportunities for some roleplaying are few and far between so it ends up being useless.
Don’t get me wrong, the module does try to capture the old Sword and Planet vibe with its strange creatures, betrayals, swordfights, secret passages, space princesses statues with gemstones embedded in them, but what could have been a classic is instead buried under the weight of monotony and arbitrary constraints. A damn shame. I could bitch about the somewhat thematically dissonant inclusion of a Vampire and some Shadows or raise my hands in baffled confusion at the existence of spell-casting clerics on Kregen but at this point why bother?
Even if you like a hackfest the module is not a good one. There are almost no opportunities for a tactical assault on some sort of base or lair. It’s just wandering around the city, sword-fighting with guards. Lame to the core. Even the dungeons are just monsters attacking immediately, treasure and some traps. No opportunity is given to use the environment or some sort of strategy to dispatch the opposition in a better fashion.
The ending is sort of bullshit as well. It is by no means clear how your characters return to earth but somehow they do after the princess has been rescued (or if she dies, no one gets XP), and depending on how lawfully lawfully good you played (you have no way of figuring out which house is evil or not), you get a bigger reward in treasure and xp. Fuck that shit.
Pros: A Sword and Planet Module?!? Plenty of new creatures. Sort of captures the vibe of Sword and Planet.
Cons: confusing and constraining layout. Slogfest. Arbitrary reward structure for decisions made during play. What could have been a magnificent location based adventure is instead reduced to a boring set of binary choices, unskippable combats and boring dungeons.
Final Verdict; This one hurts. Sword & Planet is such a classic and underused genre and the set-up could have led to a classic. There is a reason A Princess of Mars was on the Appendix N and a bestiary of mars was in the old brown books. The wasted opportunity is palpable. Beneath Two Suns is entirely forgotten by the gaming public at large and deservedly so. 3 out of 10.
* = one of the stronger aspects of the module that really captures the John Carter of Mars vibe the thing has going for it. No orcs, trolls and beholders but Korns, Chulaks and Kregen Water Lizards.
Update: Great minds think alike. Perdustin, taking a break from rooting out pernicious witches and Archveults and squabbling over IOUN stones, just wrote a post about fencing in DnD, mentioning not only the superb A Mighty Fortress historical sourcebook but also Beneath Two Suns. I would be remiss if I did not bring up Gaz 11 Republic of Darokin and the special rules governing the Darokinian Legions and their deadly proficiency with the “Darokin rapier.”