[Review] The Unseen Vaults of the Optic Experiment (Lotfp 3PP); Only what you need

[Adventure]
The Unseen Vaults of the Optic Experiment (2018)
Johan Nohr (Stockholm Kartell)
Level 3

Terse, evocative description. These words are repeated around the OSR until they become a mantra. Terse. Evocative. Description. By their power do we wade through pages of text. By their teachings do we separate what is necessary and what is superfluous.

This is a review of another 3rd party Lamentations of the Flame Princess product, a prospect which is slowly starting to fill me with dread instead of joy. Fortunately, while still reading like it was born in some sort of studio, it reads like it was born in a very dark studio, midwifed by bootleg whiskey to the sound of static and doom metal in the upper north of Norway. As European as it gets, Unseen Vaults is almost an experiment in how much you can strip out of an adventure and still render it comprehensible. It works…pretty well.

The Unseen Vaults proper is a 20 page adventure with enough text for a 7 page adventure. It consists of an 11 room Dungeon with a plethora of hidden-passageways and nonlinear corridors to make exploring the whole worthwhile.

In fact, let’s ignore the backstory (which is so brief as to be easily conveyed with a short, masculine grunt before one resumes ones task of chopping lumber for one’s drakhar so one can raid the kingdoms of the Christ God come spring) and focus on the map proper. It’s very solid for such a short map. The trick is that the boss monster, a cursed, mad beholder, is chained behind bars and thus while it is visible it cannot be reached without finding an alternative route and thus facilitating exploration. Also bonus points for including a quick cheatsheet so the contents of each room can be gleaned with a glance with a page number included for easy reference. I wish larger dungeons would have something similar, this is great!

I forget myself. The backstory.  The Vaults are the cellars of a noble family, now invaded by a group of hideous extraplanar beings who have turned it into a laboratory for finding the key to true vision. This involves copious amounts of necromancy, chaining up a live beholder observer, burning vampires and demon summoning. Thus far it has not worked. Enter the PCs.

Despite being really brief and curt the adventure generously provides us with 3 hooks! The 4 hooks are pretty simple and serviceable though they do tend to assume the players are do-gooders which is something of an OSR faux pas.

Meat and bones; The entire dungeon is affected by the vision experiments of the Freak Freaks [1] and is murky and dark as a result. This gives the GM a reason to describe things in terms of scent, smell and texture instead of boxed text descriptions that drag on forever. Rooms are described like so:

Cold metal, dust and sound of chains,
stench of a sweaty fat man. Mad howls.

Silence. Skeletal figures. Jagged blades.

With the actual description for the GM going into more detail. This reminds me a little of Tsumoto Nihei’s Texnhnolyze. You are starved off information in the first episode so every detail becomes hyper important. Details only appear when you focus on them. This is actually very interesting.

Encounters are interesting in terms of both type and content. Monsters are never simply monsters, there is always a little extra. The hideous ghost can be persuaded to aid the party, The demonic Worm flees if damaged too much and will return during another encounter (or become a recurring nemesis), the Goblin prisoner is secretely posessed by an ancient Vampiric spirit. Even the classics are given a twist, Psychotic Zombies that can re-animate or Skeletal Assassins that are entirely immune to piercing weapons (the rules are different that is).

All of the treasure is carefully hidden, which is a plus, and though it is VERY sparse, it is pretty interesting; a talking, floating skull (morte reference?) or a golden goblin tooth. This one could have been beefed up a bit more.

The use of an insane, chained up beholder (that can be freed) as a boss, or alternative a collection of nightmarish extraplanar doppleganger creatures is pretty metal and even here opportunities are set up to create a hostage scenario or a negotiation instead of a straight up slog fest, which I appreciate.

As a last courtesy to the GM, Unseen Vaults gives you a list of tips and ideas to add some extra spice to the adventure, like adding a second adventuring party, giving hints of what to do when your PCs free the Vampire Spirit from the mutant goblin prisoner, or other some such malarky.

This is a professionally designed product, makes good use of black and white full page art, is VERY reasonably priced and everything is really well laid out. Because of the plethora of opportunities for interaction and looping passageways there are multiple ways it can resolve, crucial if the GM is to run it with different groups. It’s got a solid, gloomy atmosphere but it’s pretty coherent.

I’d put this one about on par with Swine. 7.5 for mastery of the short form. I was starting to lose faith but the Lotfp community has some talent. Good on you guys.

[1] Aforementioned Extraplanar travellers

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8 thoughts on “[Review] The Unseen Vaults of the Optic Experiment (Lotfp 3PP); Only what you need

  1. This looks like a decent adventure, I’ll have to get my hands on it.
    I’m curious, do you think there is a point people can go to where it gets to terse that it becomes almost difficult to get the point across? While there is most certainly the opposite, where things get almost to wordy, to the point of excess, have you seen anything that you would say does the opposite where it becomes so you have no idea what the author is saying?
    [spicy encounters]
    This has gotta be one of the smarter design choices. Unique monsters, even with one or two special abilities to set them apart is great. Even something small to set them apart as just bags of hit points goes so far. Also, adding in tips and tricks to spice things up an really make it fit for the party is just sound design. Sounds like Nohr knows what he’s doing

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    1. [Getting paws on]

      Lemme know what ya think.

      [Terse]

      That’s a very good question. Allow me to answer in vaguely stuart-like fashion. I like terse because terse essentially means that the minimum time is spent conveying the idea and Time is Precious. There is actually another form of terse that is far more common then the variant you describe.

      If you check out some of the Old Judges Guild or TSR Stuff you can find room entries that go like:
      4 goblins. 44 sp. and then some statts. That’s too terse. It forgoes all customization, creativity and thought to just give you bland statts. This happens far more often then merely unclear. Bland is the worst form of terse.

      Examples of too terse, which is called Poor Signal/Noise Ratio where n < many many words. Lemme check:
      – Mad God's Jest
      – Monkey Business was not exactly too terse but you can bet your ass it made no sense or described throwaway lines here and there. I am still secretely hoping Jens will send me a sequel though.
      – Frostbitten & Mutilated (on a thematic level). F&M is actually pretty easy to use and the authors intent is clear. Its an atmospheric blur so its details do not add up to a coherent atmosphere.
      – mirror universe Islands of the Purple Haunted Putrescence, which is called Purple Rocks and written by Regenev Ssan'As Sinatas, Cardinal of Nodens
      – The Atheneum of Yearning by Oswalt was a bit too terse at times, to the point where it was unclear or a faction felt like it needed greater elaboration
      – Dungeon of the Unknown was very clear but just bland.

      So my very non-terse answer is that while it does happen it is far more common for sentences to become bland, dull and devoid of inspiration then it is for them to be unclear or so vague they can no longer be used.

      [Elaborate]

      It's a nice little addition that works because often these notes concern methods of negotiating or otherwise interacting with the monster. Forced combats are actually not that interesting (I mean they are part of Dnd don't get me wrong). I found my party actually reacted way better to hostage situations, honour duels, obnoxious NPCs that are not immediately hostile, betrayals, standoffs and whatnot. Direct combat is good but its only one of the tools at your disposal to create tension.

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      1. [Terse]
        I get what you’re putting down. It’s almost like bland food rather than having no idea what the flavor is being the issue
        [Forced Combat]
        Great point. On top of that, it seems like a lot of parties are just generally good in a straight fist fight. You almost have to do something different to give them a decent challenge without throwing a super bad ass monster at them, but that may just be my experience with a party of min/ maxxers

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      2. [food]

        The Meat is Exalted. The Meat is Holy.

        [Straight up]

        It might seem that way but I found that is mostly because of almost perfect decision making and infinite (practical) time to debate. Try reducing everyone’s decision making time to 10 seconds max and give them a sentence of dialogue to shout whilst frantically fighting off a band of slavering, god-marked orc-things and see what they are truly made of. I recommend this option if combat is frequent btw. They can still plan, they will just have to do it in advance, which is very oldskool.

        What I loved about old modules like Keep on the Borderlands or In Search of the Unknown (when I stocked it that is) or even The Veiled Society (yes I ran it assholes it was great!) is that the combat is relentless and death is frequent if you just charge in, particularly if you are a fighter. A good game of Dark Heresy or DnD virtually GUARANTEES death if the players simply charge in and spam their abilities. When I ran Dark Heresy I always made a frontal assault a very poor option and thus I encouraged people to plan ahead, try some sort of underhanded method or form some sort of clever infiltration plot. The one drawback to this method is that your players will not end up very brave or heroic, they will be cunning, vicious and ruthless. If you want a game where people act like heroes, acting like a hero should in some way be rewarded.

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      3. As a postscriptum, there is another type of terse that I dislike. I hate clutter in my dungeons and the GM must be able to convey an idea within the minimum amount of time but at the same time Dungeons are environments of uncertainty so the GM/designer must avoid describing only those things that are essential to the adventure. If you only describe details that are significant, you will end up with something that is really obvious and stale. Imagine what a dungeon would look like if it ONLY had treasure and monsters. It would be very boring. Dungeons need weirdness, niggling loose ends, colour and variety on the one hand and discipline and balance on the other.

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      4. Gotcha. That happy medium of enough to convey the theme, but without getting down to the thread count of the moldy, shit-covered rug the ogres are rutting on. One of the best Stars Without Numbers encounters I’ve ever seen was where the PC’s set up a complex ambush using a stair well and grenades to clean house on a bunch of Hastur mad cultists in an abandoned research facility
        [full frontal]
        a definite point for those old school modules, and all the OSR clones is the lethality. I’ll admit I haven’t played any Dark Heresy (hymns to the God-Emperor and scourging in atonement will be forthcoming) but I’ve seen is that it is unforgiving. I like the idea of the time clock to better simulate quick decision making, or at least just saying what they want to do before diving into the rule books

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      5. Truth be told, the combat in SWN never really impressed me that all that much. Ranged combat utterly dominated (as one would expect) but there were few tactical options and some weapons that utterly dominated the entire battlefield. Flash bangs were one of the worst offenders. I liked the star trading and the skill system a lot though, and the psychic powers were wicked.

        Dark heresy is not so much unforgiving as it is relentless. Because of the fate points characters can survive for a pretty long time (each fate point can double as a sort of extra life) but the game grinds you down over time, with numerous permanent disabilities for critical damage and accumulating insanity and corruption points as well as mutations that are very hard or almost impossible to remove. Even if you succeed in every endaevour, the mere sight of the worst of mankind’s foes exacts a toll on spirit and sanity and leaves one scarred. That is if you do not actively seek out the Weapons of the Enemy to use against them.

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