[Review] The Grinding Gear (Lotfp); Something Something Something Complete…

[Adventure]
The Grinding Gear (2009)
James Raggi IV (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Levels 1 – 4

The Grinding Gear (OSR) | NERD TREK

I’m reading something long so in the meantime I figured I could go back and cover one particular module that I’ve since changed my mind on. The Grinding Gear by James Raggi fascinated me in my rediscovery of the OSR and I recalled it recently since it was a learning moment for me in terms of reviewing. Now, in the waning days of Lotfp, I return to it at last, rich with experience.

Love em or hate em’, Raggi’s earlier stuff was always interesting and ambitious. Innovation was attempted, ancient methods were recalled, ideas were tried out. Many of these ideas failed, but let it never be said King James in his prime was a man of small ambition.

Grinding Gear is probably one of the few spiritual successors to Tomb of Horrors that are worth discussing because it takes some pointers from the original but adds its own twist to it. If Tomb of Horrors is a test of general intelligence and conscientiousness, Grinding Gear adds to this mixture a test of preparedness and observation. This idea could work in concept, but it expects you to run through a potential 43 rooms in a single mammoth 8 hour session in order for it to be effective. Where the final boss in Tomb of Horror was a monstrous enigma that could only be defeated via trial and error, each attempt costing one dearly, Grinding Gear’s final boss is a test of your mapping and note-keeping skills, i.e. the skills that are necessary to make an adventure feel meaningful but that ultimately boring. I think the concept of a more strategic D&D game COULD work (I need point only to the excellent Darkest Dungeon Video Game) but the execution here is what smothers it.

To re-iterate, there are some laudable elements. The concept of a revenge-obsessed architect turned innkeeper whose daughter went away with Adventurers and never returned as a villain, creating his tomb as the ultimate punishment for adventurers has a manic sort of comic book/horror movie appeal, even if the Inn being a central component in the solution of the final puzzles is somewhat farfetched (one would expect it to be ruined in one or two tries surely).

The layout and format of early Lotfp was barebones but functional, a farcry for the huge margins and decadent, art-clogged tripe that has come to dominate its catalogs in recent days. Information is presented in clear but occasionally lengthy paragraphs, and a cheat-sheet is helpfully provided to facilitate running it. It is a very useful product. When I ran it I had relatively few problems.

Gear starts off strong but putters out in the end. The adventurers coming across a dilapidated Inn in the wilderness (perhaps the region has fallen to chaos in more recent times?), suspiciously devoid of small animals and other signs of life, should set everyone on edge. A lone statue of Garvin Richrom, surrounded by Blood-drained corpses. This is an excellent example of Good Foreshadowing, hinting at a formidable threat that cannot be tackled without strategy;  52 motherfucking Stirges are LAIRING IN THE ATTIC AND USING THE TRAP TO CATCH THE FOOD FOR THEM, a charming bit of Gygaxian naturalism. Cryptic hints dole out the information piecemail in investigative adventure fashion, interlaced with sinister hints like an electrified bird cage or bloodied knives and the occasional red herring like a tome on rearing Dragons, leading me to believe Raggi may have been a CoC fan.  The hint and treasure that can only be found by climbing the roof is a classic bit of exploration reward, this is James Raggi in his waxing moon phase, when all is well, and the GM gains much pleasure from seeing the players succeed or fail by their wits, and rewards them if they do well.

If they left the inn to rot and went for straight for the statue and the trapped stairwell beneath they are dead men, but one can claim incaution or inthoroughness.

The first level of the Dungeon is clearly inspired by Tomb of Horrors, with a few additions. The use of a random encounter table for various vermin supposedly dropping from a myriad of small tunnels in the ceiling defies credibility, and the frequent use of Green Slimes or possibly Rot-grub infested dead rats hints at another side to James Raggi, a side that hides behind his edgy jocularity and flippant magnanimity and seeks to demonstrate, once and for all, that those damn jocks at high school were fools for picking on him!

In the classic Tleilaxu Fashion, the method of attack is foreshadowed to give the victim a fighting chance, but the meaning is likely to be apparent only when it is already too late. Up until the first level, the Tomb remains mostly fair, telegraphing many of its perils in advance, or at least providing clever players with a means of discerning them.

“Mark Well Your Passage, You Would-Be Robber, For the Clever Observe Closely and Only the Clever Will Win the Day.” 

From this point on many of the classic tomb elements start making their appearance in reasonably well executed fashion; secret doors that open only after multiple secret levers have been pulled, hints that can only be made out after careful observation or interaction, tunnels that have to be crawled through with Green Slimes above the entrance, darts with tropic fever, an honest to god monster closet involving formidable creatures in pits with mechanically raised floors. Good tomb crawling shit. Atmosphere could be stronger, but its about the Structure of the encounters. Ghouls. Gelatinous Cube. A bit dangerous for 1st levellers but acceptable for 2nd and 3rd level characters.

There’s a fuck you room. A party of adventurers in the beginning, barricaded in, won’t come out, 87 rations worth. The wizard has a Sleep spell. Can we talk about the implicit gentleman’s agreement in OSR era games, where equipping NPC wizards with the Sleep spell essentially makes you a Nazi? It’s not even that you can’t see it coming, but even if you do, as soon as combat starts, if you lose that initiative, you are dead. There is no counter for a sleep spell at low levels. Even having an elf in the group [1] is no use in B/X/Lotfp.

There’s the odd assholish trap that forces you to decide in a split second whether you will take a risk or not, and very probably get maimed in the process, but this is still in the spirit of good tomb crawling fun. As the PCs get closer to the entrance of the second level, the traps get less elaborate and the major thing that will be tested is the PCs ability to endure frustration, forcing them to search every doorknob and stairway for traps, and nary a clever foreshadowing to test the vaunted gift of observation. Gone is the cleverness of earlier encounters. The idols that the PCs have collected thus far serve no purpose and are not required to proceed, showing up only indirectly later on.

The enjoyment factor sinks drastically until the end of the first level, where the PCs are informed that they are in for a world of pain. Up to this point, GG is still enjoyable.

“You’ve Come So Far, But the True Test of Your Skills Has Just Begun!”

And then the PCs are trapped on the second level. Nine bazillion secret doors, none of them telegraphed, how many light sources and rations did you bring? Perhaps more importantly, how much water [2]? Do you like the sound of D6s rolling over a table as you search rooms randomly? Intentional dead ends and false tombs rack up the frustration further. This would be valid if the module thus far had been a goddamn masterpiece, a decent amount of frustration is expected. Tomb of Horrors is frustrating in many ways, but also genuinely requires you to apply yourself to each individual problem to the best of your ability.

In Grinding Gear you run the risk of suffering brutal punishment for mistakes you have made unknowingly hours if not entire sessions back. A complete red herring, the Organ, causes immense damage by suddenly and cruelly turning the hints the player has been conditioned to follow against him. If there was minor foreshadowing in the red herring origami trap on the first level, this is full on, unadulterated player torture mode, reserved only for those hubristic enough to challenge the GM to a D&D off. At this point I can remember the groaning and the shouting as my players stumbled their way onto the doors as I mercilessly kept tally, cursing as they discovered the nature of their final challenge (which is again, well telegraphed in classic Raggi Fashion).

The cleverness and meticulousness of Tomb of Horrors, the true thinking man’s module where every encounter is carefully weighed and constructed, is absent here, tempered with an abuser’s mercurial whim. The obstacles are not cunning riddles to be circumnavigated, but thick roadblocks of permutation that must be ground through against the looming threat of a timer that is winding ever downward.

The final challenge is a series of three rooms, run through with electrical wire and airlock doors and other such tossfiddle to ensure the PCs run the dungeon like the GM wants them to run it. They must answer questions if they are to proceed, but instead of clever riddles the questions are about things the PCs encountered on the surface. How many Guestrooms did the inn have? What is my Daughter’s Name? How many idols are there in my Tomb? While some of the answers might conceivably be brute forced, the price for wrong answers is d6 damage for each wrong answer, and is likely to force PCs to either take risks or risk running out of food. The director of SAW would be proud.

The final climax yet again uses a false set-up and with a final cruel sneer incautious PCs run the risk of either finding nothing at all, which would be entirely in the spirit of the module, or at last, through saintly patience, come away with great wizardly gains and many a harrowing panicked memory of the tedium and drudgery that they suffered in those night-haunted halls of Stone. Only the most unreasonable caution will prevent the bulk of the treasure from being damaged and destroyed.

I find it hard to call Grinding Gear a complete piece of shit because it is fairly meticulous and deliberate in its exercise of cruelty and fairly effective, but the resulting experience is likely to be an acquired taste if a taste at all. The novelty of modules that are frustrating by design rather then accident is one that has fortunately taken little root outside of Raggi’s own creations, and some of the traps represent arbitrary shitfuckery, with the PCs likely lacking the resources to call upon the powers of outer planes for answers, or discern hazard from window dressing with a myriad of divinatory spells.

At the same time, the central premise is simply impractical, the proposed method of marathoning it in a book-keeping heavy 8 hour mega session with a potential 41 rooms, not including backtracking and other such tossfiddle, is more harrowing then exciting, the stumble-and-headbutt-walls-until-doors-are-found is complete fucking arbitrary shitfuckery and the purpose of the module is somewhat elusive. Tomb is brutal but its purpose is challenge, the players should theoretically have the resources to cope. Gear seems more like something the GM inflicts on players, rather then makes them a part of, a cruel demonstration of arbitrary power to humble, rather then elevate. Coupled with a fairly bland second half, it’s lack of popularity is probably just. A rare grotesquery, fit for museum display, but don’t try it at home. **

For the curious I will state that my own players did indeed stumble through and complete the Grinding Gear, even managing to liberate some of the treasures they found in the final tomb. I was always strict in my enforcement of Lotfp’s excellent encumbrance rules and made all keep careful track of light sources and food, though I assumed water and food to be equal, not that it would have made a great deal of difference. This was in part to their mapper, a man with a fondness for sonic the hedgehog merchandise, who had diligently mapped the inn and the dungeon, granting them victory. I must admit some small leniency in correcting a misspelling I myself had introduced, and I may have telegraphed the last bit somewhat too much (I believe I asked whether or not they wanted to remove Richrom’s Corpse or climb in with him still in it), but I think overall my arbitration was not unjust. The trolls and the oozes they buried under flasks of burning oil since before they could be released, a habit they favoured since Carcosa, and the stirges they burnt down along with the inn. Saving throws were favorable. At the end, all were tired, shouting and groaning with each new puzzle room, nervous wrecks. They were good players, better then I deserve. I say this not because I recommend it, but because I feel Raggi would approve when he reads this.

Perhaps this should be Grinding Gear’s true purpose. As the Lotfp era draws to its inevitable end, each year the OSR can mark the day; To gather together in alleyways and humid basements, garbed in black and anointed with stale dorito dust, dourly sit in candle-lit rooms and sup bitter brews, and partake of The Grinding Gear in mirthless remembrance of the Reign of Great King James and all that he stood for.

This is Prince. Stay Healthy everyone. And in case you are new here and have not checked it out already, be sure to check out my very own Red Prophet Rises and be on the look-out for the kickstarter of my new adventure, coming soon! I will see you all next time!

[1] In AD&D and subsequent editions, it was decided Elves did not sleep and were therefore immune to Sleep and resistant to Charm, an underrated advantage because of the implicit gentleman’s agreement to use sleep but seldomly at lower levels. Eventually Sleep was given a saving throw from D20, relegating this unstoppable low level encounter ender to an ineffectual debuff languishing in the lower tiers of Wizard spell selections.
[2] Often omitted, managing Water is probably rewarding as it incentivizes PCs to drink from fountains, pits, dubious decanters and other dungeon ornaments far more often. 1 days of water, assuming 5 liters, is about 5kg, an item per day of water carried seems reasonable. Something to consider if you ever do a megadungeon.


8 thoughts on “[Review] The Grinding Gear (Lotfp); Something Something Something Complete…

  1. Ah, Grinding Gear. The innkeeper’s concept and a few of the first level’s traps are so great that I keep wanting to run it, but I don’t trust myself to handle its flaws well enough to actually give it a go. I’ll probably split the difference and rewrite it in an edited form, if I foresee using it.

    [Green slimes and rot grubs]

    On the one hand, I think there is room for trap-as-monster designs. On the other hand, their actual implementation tends to be dissatisfying in practice. Rot grubs are the better of the two since the counterplay (both preemptive and reactionary) is more intuitive, but I’m not a fan of either outside of select circumstances (e.g. the green slime ceiling in the Juiblex shrine of Night Below book 2).

    [Foreshadowing]

    I’m usually pretty dense about foreshadowing, so “apparent only when it is already too late” is my normal state 😀. Do you have a heuristic for differentiating good and bad foreshadowing?

    [Sleep Nazis]

    Yet another problem attributable to the Greyhawk supplement, since nothing in the LLBs implies bypassing a saving throw for Sleep.

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    1. [Grind]

      If you can’t find anything else that tickles your fancy in the same way you could give it a go, parts of it are alright, though I suspect that we will come upon superior alternatives in this tombcrawl ere it is over.

      [trap monsters]

      The slime on the ceiling at the end of a tunnel is totally legitimate and I respect it. Rot Grubs…eh. I suppose its on the same order of lethality as the Slime or Brown mould or whathaveyou but the monster must add to the challenge in a non-arbitrary fashion.

      [Foreshadowing]

      Good foreshadowing hints at things to come and primes the brain to expect them without giving them away. Ideally the meaning of the hints is only consciously realized when the threat is imminent. “You may not have noticed it, but your brain did,” as RLM states.

      Bad foreshadowing is all foreshadowing that does not set a tone, set the wrong tone, is too blatant, is too subtle etc. etc. etc.

      [Sleep]

      Probably with saving throw it would still be worth it but it would be more fickle. As its too good to give to randomly encountered wizards without any forewarning.

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  2. Completely unrelated,, but thank you and great job with the linking and internal referencing of the PDFs . It’s great that you listen to the customer and I find it much more user friendly and am more likely to run Kellerins Rumble.

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    1. Full Credit goes to Aaron for that one, but I am overjoyed its to your liking, and we will ensure that something similiar is done with Palace.

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  3. Having blundered badly on the B/X rules, I’ll pose this as a question: I take it that divination spells are limited/non-existent in the Lamentations spell list, and that there is no create food and drink spell? Good review, and I think you seize on the vital point of whether or not people will actually enjoy playing this.
    Concerning the Sleep spell, whether or not elves succumb is important; also the number of hit dice effected, as TSR era parties (plus henchmen/hirelings) tended to be big. I didn’t mind opponents using the spell as long as the consequences were that the PCs woke up as prisoners, rather than massacred moments later. Tactically your archers and magic missile memorising/wand wielding magic-users had to nullify enemy spellcasters as a priority, the hold person spell from clerics also being a menace.

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    1. There are differences between the Lotfp spell-list and the B/X spell list that are subtle but noticeable. Clerics have no access to Create Food and Drink, but the divination spell list is mostly unaffected (Detect Evil, Augury, and the 4th level Divination are intact). I was taking into account the diminished spell capacity at levels 1 – 3 versus the truly herculean (or is that Merlynian? Prosperian?) spell-selection at levels 9-14.

      Elves are not immune, adhering closely to their B/X counter-parts. Your treatment of the spell is just, I had not taken into account that many people would be less ruthless then PCs tend to be. I am fondly reminded of two other massively important cadidates in the low level arena of spellcastery, that of Darkness and Silence. A 2nd level spell is sufficient to neutralize all enemy casting within its environs without a saving throw. The mind recoils and shudders. Oldschool DnD was a much more subtle game then many of its more codified successors and much of that absolutism has been watered down with saving throws, something of a waste I feel. Vetriloquism, one of the most frivolous spells, was suddenly a powerful countermeasure, and proficiencies for silent spell use made rudimentary sense.

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