Dan Greenberg (Mayfair Games Inc.)
Levels 4 – 5
I’m starting to consider the possibility that maybe Role Aids wasn’t all garbage. After the promising but flawed Clockwork Mage and the unadulterated oldschool glory that was Deadly Power perhaps the late 80s were Role Aids’s glory days and its catalogue is in fact brimming with undiscovered treasures. I mean I don’t really believe that but it beats “even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
Pinnacle is an unmistakably good adventure reminiscent of the novella Stardock by Fritz Leiber, if only because that’s the only fantasy story I know where mountaineering plays such a major part in the story (the Worm Ouroboros doesn’t count). It successfully combines time pressure, hidden adversaries, difficult terrain, mystery and exploration into what is an adventure in the truest sense of the word.
It all begins with an awesome premise; On a futile hunt for a mysterious child-snatching group of brigands, our heroes encounter a messenger bearing an invitation from what appears to be the fantasy equivalent of the Super Adventure Club; the Gentlemen’s Adventuring Society. A reward of 100.000 gp and lifelong membership is awarded to the party that first reaches the top of Pinnacle, the highest mountain in the world. The game is afoot!
The plot is far more complex then a mere race against the clock, involving an alchemical cult of assassins, a concealed priesthood of poison worshippers, fucking kobolds, an evil mayor and a godlike being and goddamn if every element does not come together magnificently in an honest to god blast-from-the-past rip-roaring adventure.
The adventure starts you off on the wrong foot, by introducing the Player Characters (most Role Aids modules from this era were suited for tournament play), who come across as the finalists from some sort of Biggest Fantasy Cuck in the Universe competition. I mean don’t get me wrong, each character is nicely differentiated from the rest in terms of personality and each has a list of contacts in the city that they can use to get rumors, which I thought was an awesome idea, but they just come across as the biggest fucking Cucks in all of the multiverse.
Hawk is the ranger leader but he doesn’t want to lead and his motto is ‘the blood of innocents must never be spilled,’ the cleric is raising a 12 year old thief to give him a second chance, the Dwarf is not gruff but jolly and his motto is ‘It is better to be a child of the world then of only one race. You have a lot more Kin that way’ and I fucking halfway expected the wizard’s background to tell us of the child he and his boyfriend had adopted from
africa Aeshaba and saving up money for a 20.000.000 gp lawsuit against his former podcast showhost or something. Pinnacle even assures us its fine if we change their genders but commits an unforgiveable thoughtcrime by suggesting that this might impact their personality and background somewhat. What a bunch of nazis.
Everything after character creation rox. It’s starts with an excellent map. Pinnacle is simulated via hex map only instead of horizontal ground it depicts vertical ground. You can gripe that in this way it can only show one face of the mountain and any future mountain mapper would do well to simply connect the uttermost right hexes with the uttermost left to create a sort of wrap-around 3D effect. It doesn’t matter much because the map gets its punches in where it needs to. Different hexes represent different sections of the mountain (glacier, snow-covered, sheer rock etc.) each with a different chance of hazards and each takes a different amount of time to cross properly. While you are generally limited to 8 hours per day of climbing, the game offers a push your luck mechanic that allows you to travel longer at the peril of temporarily lowering your constitution.
Random encounters on the slope often involve natural hazards like avalanches, rockfalls, and snow storms but also push your luck mechanics like barely navigable snow-bridges spanning chasms (it takes longer to go around). On very rare occasions, the characters encounter animals, patrols of Kobolds, or even the dreaded Shaken, and sometimes you even catch a lucky break by finding one of the few enchanted warm spots that allow you to recover most of your lost stamina with only 8 hours of rest. Pinnacle has never been climbed in known history and the adventure maintains a certain verisimilitude by introducing its most important feature, the Howlers; enchanted storm creatures that are attracted to magic, dispelling or disrupting all but the most rapid enchantments while they are cast.
I make it sound as though you are immediately dropped into the contest but if anything Pinnacle does a great job at build-up and set-up. The adventurers are introduced to the Gentlemen’s Adventuring Society, a collection of decadent aristocrats with overblown reputations whose idea of ‘adventures’ consists of hunting a single goblin with 20 armed men on horseback and who generally come across as foppish twats, but hey, 100k gp! But even here the game adds a little nuance and hidden depth by having one member be one of the few surviving Paladins of the Golden Order, who were wiped out by the Shaken and is now covertly trying to get people to investigate Pinnacle, suspecting that’s where the Shaken are born.
The approach to rumours is unique and I think I love it. Remember how each character started with a list of contacts? Now each character can choose to follow up those contacts in search of rumours about Pinnacle, the Gentleman’s Adventuring Society, the Shaken, missing dwarves and whathaveyou. The neat thing is that each of these different contacts responds differently, and sometimes you can only get proper information by effective roleplaying, surviving a fight, or trading over some of your hard-earned starting magic items. Hell, one ends up with an insane hermit giving you a gem to trap the Howlers in, which is expanded upon as being damn tricky. Awesome. The one flaw is that as written, there is no time limit, so there is really no reason not to explore each contact, which is fine since going into Pinnacle without being forewarned might be your last expedition.
After that Pinnacle sets up the antagonists or rivals brilliantly by having all of them attend a celebration in honor of the Pinnacle expedition. Great antagonists too, a Team of surly Dwarves, an Academic with weird inventions, a bombastic wizard and a duplicitous member of the Gentleman’s adventuring Society, who may perhaps be likened to Rowling’s Gilderoy Lockhart.
The Assassin Factory (that’s the name of the faction that produces the Shaken) is aware of the expedition and decides to try to prevent it by sowing seeds of dissent by sabotaging the climbing gear of multiple members at first, and straight up attempting to assassinate the leader of the Gentleman’s Society by leaping out of the Pinnacle Cake! The celebration is kept interesting because some of the other contestants also have nefarious plans to win by underhanded means, going so far as replacing all the colored Alchemical arrows the contestants are meant to fire when they reach the top of Pinnacle (the arrows only burn in low-oxygen atmosphere so it is not possible to “cheat” by firing the arrow from anywhere but the top) with his own arrows. Even more importantly, the game attempts to fuck you by having a Priest of the Procession perform a “blessing” on you, and you might not even know he is evil. If you are, getting out of it (which has serious consequences) is made very difficult, but clever roleplaying allows at least one character to avoid it).
After the intro it is time to leave for Pinnacle and the adventure spends a few sentences really fleshing out the scope of the expedition, which I love, the race is eventually on. Instead of leaving everything to random chance, Pinnacle takes an approach that is more in line with Gone Fishin, and just presents scripted events at different points on the mountain while committing the faux pas of telling the GM to roll fake dice as though he was carefully tracking everyone’s progress. It is, all thing considered, a minor faux pas that does not take away from the adventure, though hardcore GM’s could easily track the progress of other groups using the rules and statts already provided to make it more organic.
The mountain has two adventuring locations, both sparsely detailed and both very well done. The first is a kobold stronghold located about 3 miles up in an area of magical warmth left behind by the race of god-like beings that once lived atop Pinnacle. The kobolds brilliantly use water to try to cause players to surrender, getting drenched being an almost certain death sentence in this climate unless a warm and sufficiently dry area can be found. The kobold camp is nothing special, but I appreciate Kobolds that use tactics, are open to negotiation (and in fact attempt to capture and subdue so they can ransom captives back) and can even be of aid in locating one of the many secret passages that thread Pinnacle (a true staple of Pulp S&S, secret doors are ubiquitous and fucking awesome). My one concern is of how a single mountain can sustain 60-240 Kobolds for any prolongued period of time is actually adressed because of the magically warm hotspot, agricultural operations and the camp even has a Granary! Full points for getting the details right.
The second and more formidable location is the Assassin Factory, a complex carved from the Top of Pinnacle, home to a sinister trio of Alchemists that create the unstoppable Shaken from captured men from the surrounding region and sell them off to unscrupulous evil-doers for astronomical fees. They are assisted in this by the assholish Priests of the Procession, who at first seem benevolent but are actually Poison-worshipping dickbags that control the drugged dwarves that carved out the complex.
This section is 6 pages and it is fucking genius in a way. The complex is about 18 rooms but adequately nonlinear, with rooms sparsely described and treasure relatively mundane, about what you’d find in a B/X adventure, with some highlights including a map of the complex and a three tonne Ivory Table (good luck getting THAT one down the mountain).
It excels as a stealth adventure and it is weird enough for Sword and Sorcery DnD, which is best DnD. Multiple means of egress. An opportunity to don the vestments of the Shaken. Drugged guards primed to attack if they are given a certain clue. A minotaur guard who can be tricked but who is not stupid. Possibly overwhelming response from two dozen Shaken (at first drugged) if the players manage to get the facility alerted. The game pulls another GREAT fast one on you; That blessing you got? Anyone so blessed is unable to DIRECTLY HARM a priest of the procession. The guy sustaining the Chant is sitting somewhere in a meditation room, oblivious. You can’t hurt him…but there are drugged dwarves! Or maybe you find a nonlethal way of getting him to stop! It’s such an awesome little curve-ball that forces players to plan and think on their feet should they encounter some of the Priests. I love it. The use of drugged slaves (and a drugged harem) and orange robes lends a real sleezy S&S vibe to these guys.
It also adds something that is essential to DnD which is FANTASY. If I want low fantasy I’ll play Harnmaster. Give me something awesome. A drugged God-like being whose blood is used to fashion the Shaken? You can help him walk through the portal at the top of Pinnacle after which it will destroy itself violently within several hours? Fuck yeah.
Even after the players have freed the Immortal and make their way down MAYOR FUCKING PHELPS, IF HE SURVIVED comes back to fuck with them on the ree-bound, another classic gambit that is underutilized in today’s degenerate adventure-creation days. You give the Pcs a really tough fight and you follow that fight up with a moderately tough fight when they think they are safe. Awesome.
There are few gripes. The map lists a Ruined City at the top of Pinnacle but does not really describe it in any way, which is a missed opportunity, even a paragraph would have sufficed. I would have appreciated a little more description at times but even here I can’t really fault the adventure, since it provides you everything you need to run it properly and atmospherically, provided you know your Appendix N. Uh…wow. This thing is really good, and only the best will be able to both survive it AND claim the reward without having the fucking Super Adventure Club take credit. Wicked.
Pros: An honest to god mountain climbing extravaganza of dashing Heroism, farce, intrigue, Cloak & Dagger, do-darring escapades, enchanted Assassins, secret passageways and more! GREAT use of Contacts to generate rumors and gain information. Nice NPCs.
Cons: Possibly the cuckiest starting characters I have ever seen in a tournament module. The race element relies on GM shenanigans to generate the tension which I don’t like.
Pinnacle is another surprise hit from the Role Aids Catalog and managed to impress me. I don’t see it mentioned that often and that might be a shame because this is EXACTLY the type of stuff that would interest fans of the original DnD still looking for that oldschool vibe. Probably the best Role Aids product so far. 8.5 out of 10.