Clockwork Mage (1985)
Susan Stone & M.E Allen (Mayfair Games)
Levels 2 – 5
I know I know I know Role Aids sucks but getting through the Giovanni Chronicle is pretty grueling and I need a break alright? I almost found another good module. Or at least I think I did. This module tries to be good. It tries so hard but it fucks itself on so many levels. The core is solid but damn its in the detail.
The premise is great! Picture two wizards. Not your typical greybearded and solemn Elminster/Gandalf bozos but more like the foppish loons from Vance’s Rhialto the Marvellous or any selection of wizards from Terry Pratchett or some shit. A prankwar between Humbert the Clockwork Mage and the local magic user Kazin (who rides a feathered Red Dragon yyyeeessss) gets massively out of hand when Humbert actually steals her demon-controlling regalia and refuses to give them back for months on end, finally prompting her to shrink him and imprison him in a complex clockwork structure in the middle of his mansion. The adventurers are sent to investigate and promptly have to deal with both her wish to get the item back, his head Automaton Alex’s wish to get him freed and her pet Red Dragon’s demand to get a lost gemstone back.
First up, the adventure bullshits its way around the obvious plotholes pretty well. Kazin is magically barred from entering the tower that holds her Regalia so she needs someone else to do it, Alex is bound to obey her and can only indirectly funnel the party to the solution of the adventure and Humbert’s indentured apprentice is too much of a bozo to show any initiative either way.
The mansion is HUGE, with over 122 rooms. multiple means of exploration, teleportation stuff and so on. The map is damn fine, legible, 3-d and actually in the shape of a mansion, complete with basement, stables and whathaveyou. It’s also weird, but not my favourite type of weird. Basically, it really hammers home the magic-as-technology shtick and so the entire mansion is this bizarre automated place with automaton servants (literally clockwork with vat-grown flesh moulded over it), telescoping clockwork arms and teleportation portals everywhere. It’s not outlandishly lazy in the manner of the hated Book of Wondrous Inventions but its more of a retro-futuristic steampunk mansion then a magic mansion if that makes any sense.
The tone of the thing is…lighthearted. It doesn’t descend into outright farce but the players are constantly subjected to animatronic practical jokes (glue dumps, illusionary spike walls, eggs on heads etc.) of increasing lethality as they move up several floors, and the Sim Alex that harasses them into the right directions looks like a 4 foot high mime. Yet the adventure never descends into Castle Greyhawk levels of buffoonery, if anything it is overly concerned with making sure all of the myriad inhabitants of the mansion have some sort of reason for being there (at times to the point where it becomes tedious, a mimic is given a ring of weakness to explain its low damage bite). In the same fashion, many of the traps provide a hindrance or obstacle but are very seldom lethal, which makes many of them feel somewhat inconsequential. Contrast this with some of the practical jokes, like the fucking SPIKE WALL OF DEATH, where you had better hope to god you have got yourself 35 STR combined or you are fucked. One encounter stuck with me as being brilliant. A gateway to an underwater realm reveals a MASSIVE pile of gold. Surely you can hold your breath long enough to take it!
Enemies are…surprisingly solid and they make a bizarre sort of sense. Swarms of construct things, bats, animating statues, creatures that wandered in or escaped Hubert’s menagerie (old favorites like the displacer beast and blink dogs make an appearance). New monsters include a species of teleporting giant rat that Hubert bred (teleportation appears to be another of Huberts specialties), a species of displacer plant and the various types of Sims that inhabit the building, most of which are not automatically hostile. Honestly the encounters could be very good (like, say, a thief that impersonates a Sim accountant and subsequently tries to pickpocket the party), if not for the fact that some of them feel unfinished. At times NPCs will be introduced without motivation and given only the slimmest of reasons to be there. A particularly grating example was Hubert’s room, which was given a wolfhound (and 7 automaton wolfhounds that jump out of the closet GREAT GREAT GREAT) but the adventure gives no treasure in this room, making the encounter fucking useless. There is a unique lion demon with a Sim double that is awesome but there is a very large chance he attacks on sight (unless the PCs are lawful good, in which case HE CANNOT do so).
There is a lot of dead air in the 120 room mansion, I’d estimate about the recommended 1/3rd of the mansion having absolutely nothing going on (at least the adventure doesn’t linger overly long, utilizing 1 sentence descriptions) which is okay, but nevertheless the mansion seems very empty. Both treasure and monsters seem sparse, though what is present is above average, especially for the time. The adventure will even reward you with non-obvious treasure by say…allowing you to steal and pawn off a Sim doctor if you come up with it. This emptiness is compounded by the adventure’s odd ADD where it will describe a GREAT encounter (leprechauns using illusions trapped in the walls that want to get out) but then fucking itself by not describing any sort of reaction or gratitude afterward.
I feel this adventure keeps punching below its weightclass with tiny niggling errors that fuck with the internal consistency. There are portals in the courtyard that lead to other locations in the world and there is an encounter with desert warriors that stumbled into the mansion via the desert side but this violates one of the mansion’s own rules where certain portals can only be bypassed when one is wearing a certain amulet.
Uh fuck, what else. Freeing Hubart is actually pretty tricky, although the adventure provides you with plenty of ways in which to figure out how to do it and Alex tries to herd you in the right direction. There is even something of a failure condition here, fucking up repeatedly by carelessness can kill Hubert, causing Alex to go berserk and attempt to murder the players with practical death jokes. It’s even possible to go into the basement and destroy the control mechanism of the mansion, rendering all teleporters, sims and practical jokes inert. The bare bones of something really solid and interesting are certainly there, but its presented in this clumsy format where it fucks itself. By the time I got through the basement, I was confused and it doesn’t help the adventure at times refers to certain sections of the adventure by obsolete titles instead of page numbers. The adventure relies on you finding certain items to free Hubart and Alex sort of steering you towards the right areas but the rooms with the items are NOT clearly marked on the map.
What else can I say? There is a 10 page section on Sim creation that essentially means you can implement it any game and gives you precise figures for recommended levels, gp cost, customizable abilities and so on that is very useful. I just wish it wouldn’t dwell so long on the exact nonsense mechanics of each individual component. I don’t care if your magitech robots run on spheres filled with elements from the elemental plane of Fire or whatever it’s nonsense just give me the bare basics and let me run with it.
Yeah let’s rant some more about the treasure. For an adventure of character levels 2 – 5, this adventure is INSANELY stingy with its treasure, with quest rewards of 30 – 100 gp and a remarkable drought on the magic item front, with the exception of available NPCs, which are loaded for bear. Sometimes there will be descriptions of silver cutlery without a gp value, which is bullshit. The mansions needed, paradoxically, more shit to interact with.
My forays into Role Aids have not been positive but I feel this one has by far the most potential but the layout, the sloppy sentences, the confusing way the various interlocking components are presented and the dearth of encounters and treasure just FUCK IT. If I compare it with A Question of Gravity it is WAY more ambitious, better written and more creative but it just FUCKS itself with so many of these little niggling inefficiencies.
Pros: Unique goofy atmosphere. Good monster placement, good premise, good traps, huge mansion map. Almost a proper fucking magic mansion. Creative with some nonstandard monster use. Proper use of NPCs.
Cons: The magic as technology shtick always makes me bring up a little bile, the fucking format is confusing when you consider all the moving parts, sloppy editing, not enough treasure man.
Man this one hurts. I was rooting for this one. Unlike Beneath Two Suns you can run this and I suspect it might be a gay old time but hot damn it takes considerable effort and it just needed a bit more OOMPH. As it is, though it is by far the most promising of the Role Aids entries, I can’t give it any higher then a 6.5 out of 10.