[Review] The Hidden Serpent (LL); Surface Mimicry

[Adventure]
The Hidden Serpent (2010)
Jeff Sparks (Faster Monkey Games)
Levels 2 – 4

Today I am reminded of an adage, whose source I have conveniently forgotten, that if one seeks to do a remake or a homage one best selects mediocre or obscure works rather then trying to vainly imitate greatness. Case in point; The Hidden Serpent by Jeff Sparks is a 20 page dungeoncrawl paying tribute to the classic In Search of the Unknown from 2010, when the OSR was more about reaffirming and rediscovering the values of classic DnD then it was about innovating or expanding upon them. As an inevitable side-effect of this imitation many of the features of ISoTU are recycled but the subtleties are lost [1] making the module feel dated after a decade of fresh OSR.

If I can say anything about Jeff Sparks’s style as an adventure writer it is that the adventures tend to be well constructed (though they tend to be heavy in combat and low in faction play or roleplaying) but relatively vanilla, adhering so closely to the tropes of classic DnD as to seem generic or uninspiring. While this particular module is not without its charming elements [2], much of it is going to seem flat and stark, lacking the sense of discovery and spirit of exploration of its spiritual predecessor.

The backstory is overly descriptive for what it sets out to do. Rogar and Zeglin [3] are two unscrupulous mercenaries of tremendous power. After serving as mercenary generals for two-penny border barons for many years, they construct their secret keep QUAZKYTON [4] and stuff it with loot and soldiers. A tussle with their captain and a sudden commission has caused both extremely powerful adventurers to leave the keep relatively undefended on short notice, prompting a quick break in by the PCs. Get in, take the shit, get out before they get back.
There is a long section on the second level being haunted by undead and Zeglin having shut it off with magic wards but the explanation only serves to further quench whatever flames of inspiration this module has going for it. Get to the point!

The major difference between ISotU and The Hidden Serpent is in the organization of its inhabitants. In this respect The Hidden Serpent has a greater resemblance to Keep on the Borderlands. Quazkyton, while under-strength, is eminently well-organized, with alarms, armed guards behind barred doors requesting passwords, patrols and alarm traps (magical or otherwise). Unless a frontal assault is attempted, players will have to devise clever strategems to enter the fortress. To its credit, the module does a splendid job of setting this up, introducing a patrol of wandering mercenaries on recruitment drive to allow the players to join up with them (but keeping the guards very suspicious and on their toes so as not to make it too easy) and allowing for ways the front gate guard may be tricked. Its very likely the players will wander around the keep in disguise, and the adventure provides the means to do this. There are multiple instances that allow the PCs to impersonate someone else, though discovery is always just around the corner.

THS’s map pales in comparison to the original. Gone is the sprawling maze of winding corridors, cross-sections and interconnecting passageways. Instead we get a central hub with side-passages that branch of into their own 4-6 room hubs. It’s not linear but it just doesn’t compare to the older stuff, coming off as restrained and cramped. I do appreciate the inclusion of multiple entrances and passages to the second level, however, allowing for nonlinear exploration.

The hooks are pretty well done. Escaped slaves are caught stealing a chicken and tell the PCs about the hidden fortess (providing rumors as they are interrogated by the PCs). Alternatively, an elf is looking for his sacred statue [5] and offers a reward for retrieving it (and a lesser reward for merely bringing the PCs to the place in question).

The resemblance to ISotU is ultimately not in the modules favor. The magic mouth at the beginning, followed by the site of a massacre between guards and adventurers or the series of magical cauldrons with different contents come across as a little stale [6]. Like its predecessor, the second level (complete with magical crystal etc. etc.) is largely redundant, filled with monsters that attack on sight (albeit undead dwarves in this case, along with Wights and Wraiths, making it a death trap) and a crystal that you can touch to gain random effects. While some of the trappings have been enhanced somewhat from the original, it just comes off as out of place in a location that is far more about stealth, caution and a sense of urgency.

Most of the opponents on the upper levels are guards, orcs or bugbears, working in unison, with no possibility for faction play (though some prisoners may be freed for extra information). The opposition lacks charm and distinction, which is a shame since interacting with them is meant to be a part of the module (since a direct assault is suicide). Spec ops DnD can be fun but I like my DnD weird, wonderous and bold. THS is the opposite of that. Even the magical events are all done by Zelikar and are explained in considerable detail (usually as combinations of different spells).

THS is appropriately titled since its resemblance to In Search of the Unknown is going to trick people into a feeling of false security. THS is unforgiving and often lethal. It is very easy to get detected, opponents mobilize in case of a straightup fight and the traps are deadly, sometimes to the point of ludicrousness. Pit traps filled with Green Slime. A fake Zellikar room filled with traps. A combination illusion/silence/pit trap trap that is meant to cause fake death that leads into a 5 foot deep water pit filled with Grey Ooze. The module is so tough it actually gives you several tips to lower the difficulty (which I will recommend for the first time ever unless your players are veterans). The entire lower levels are arguably a death trap (unless you bring a cleric, Turn Undead saves!) and contain a rust monster and a Paralyzing low HD roper to fuck you up. Also, magical alarm traps that trigger unless you wear a certain uniform are arbitrary garbage and should be banned from all DnD.

Mundane Treasure is all tapestries worth n, crystal decanters, heart-shaped rubies and so on, and is reasonably executed, although I feel a chance has been missed by not including ISotU’s gambit of making some treasure valuable but recognizable as belonging to Rogan and Zeligar. In contrast, the Magical treasure is all book-standard magic items, swords +1, cloaks of elvenkind etc. etc. The one thing I found noteworthy was a cask of enchanted booze that Zelligar apparently used to control his troops, now opened, which can conceivably be used by the PCs.

While I don’t think its poorly done and there are some well-executed elements, Metal Gear Solid DnD is not my favourite DnD. The Hidden Serpent lacks the thrill of exploration of its predecessor and replaces it with long lists of armory contents, storerooms, barracks and orcs. Making Quasqueton smaller, more organized, more deadly and more coherent paradoxically diminishes much of its charm. The way the map is organized does not allow for the kind of stealthy cat and mouse game of retreats and ambushes that is virtually required to deal with the Keep’s inhabitants.

Pros:  Intelligent opposition. Opportunities for infiltration and intelligent tacitics. Use of classic dungeon tropes. Overal pretty tightly designed.

Cons: Generic. Lack of charm or distinction. Deadly, unforgivably so at times. Tribute to B1 falls flat. Boring monsters.

While I am sure that when it came out people were yearning for new OSR material, The Hidden Serpent doesn’t do it for me. I don’t mind Deadly, I mind stale. Unless you are really into deadly spec ops Dnd and you don’t really care about the fantasy elements that much, I’d give this one a miss. 5 out of 10.

[1] Compare The Force Awakens to the classic A New Hope
[2] An Ogre bearing two two-handed swords with a shield strapped to his chest, a trapped tome of orc limerics and a cauldron with regenerating troll blood that has a chance to turn the imbiber into a troll for example
[3] e.g Zogan and Relikar, Regan and Zolikar, Bogan and Belikar etc. etc.
[4] e.g Kuasqueton, Buasketon, Rogan & Zellikar Land etc. etc.
[5] Anyone familiar with ISotU should be able to figure out what statue is meant
[6] In the module’s defense, the contents of the cauldrons are far more potent and interesting then that of ISotU.

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