[Review] In the Name of the Principle! (Swords & Magic); Science Fantasy Done Right

[Adventure]
In the Name of the Principle (2016)

Gabor Lux (E.M.D.T. 22)
Lvl 5 – 7



Gabor Lux is probably the best kept secret in the OSR. A Fight On! Contributor, Rappan Athuk afficianado, early Castles & Crusades homebrewer and now the purveyor of the excellent Echoes from Fomalhaut Magazine and the spectacular Xyntillian, his every appearance is marked by respectful genuflections by old campaigners and the outraged gnashing and stand-offish yiffing of the perpetually offended. Annually Kent is said to visit his letter box, leaving not the usual jet black 60 proof puddle of ethanol and urine, but instead the sweet scent of daffodils accompanied by a kindly worded poem pointing out some missed avenues in an rpg review. On top of everything else, he knows a good module when he sees it!
To chronicle all of his work would take herculean effort [1] but actual reviews are slim. I intend to rectify that. As I owe this gentlemen no small debt for casting his sound judgement on mine and Aaron’s humble efforts at module-cobbling, it will take all of my power to not let this review devolve into a lengthy hagiography with homo-erotic undertones, so I shall rely on you, the noble reader of this review, to keep me honest.

In the Name of the Principle is probably one of the worst places to start because A) it is free, B) a very nonstandard scenario posing some unique challenges to running it and C) The Kurgan considers it one of the best things he has ever written and his understanding of good D&D trumps my own (for now that is!). It took me a second try to fully grok it, and catch the bulk of the subtle lines that the GM could work with, or think through the implications of some of the elements (I was sick, no Corona bitches!).

This review contains spoilers.

Know oh Prince, that the list of actual S&S that good sword & sorcery adventures in old-school gaming are hard to come by; and for all the talk of the mouldering tomes of Appendix N, few have struck the right balance between the imagery and spirit of S&S, and the playability of old-school D&D. Most old-school adventures do not reach deep into the pulp tradition, or fail to grasp what is in there; and most S&S adventures remain semi-interactive railroads, failing on the game level.  Today we talk about an exception.

In the Name of the Principle is Saberhagen’s Changeling Earth, majestically cross-bred with noble specimens of Harrison’s Viriconium and Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. A subtle atmospheric powerhouse, set in the postapocalyptic world of Fomalhaut in the year 3995 of Solon. The PCs have been ordered by the Arx, a holy order still retaining some feeble grasp on the old technologies to arrange for the death of the Tyrant Megakrates and his band of nefarious conspirators during the Festival of the Mysteries and to carry out a Coup de Etat in the city state of Akrasia. To make matters worse, a day after the party is sent out, armed with various high tech killing devices, the Arx comes back on its decision and dispatches a band of killers to instead protect the Tyrant and wipe out the PCs.
For levels 5 – 7?!? Holy shit!

This type of premise tends to fill me with dread because so often a premise like this will create an expectation that the actual adventure can never hope to meet. This module, in 24 pages, must not only create a milieu that channels the very remote corners of the Appendix N, but also create a fully playable open-ended scenario that covers a great degree of contingencies. IT IS LIKE HALF OF MY DARK HERESY SESSIONS. I am still not certain the few suggestions I have would add to it or render it unnecessarily rigid. Whenever I think of something I would absolutely need to run this adventure, it is always there and I merely skipped over it. Run this but READ CAREFULLY.

So Akrasia is a sunny resort city state, known for its annual festival of the Mysteries, and ruled with a subtle but iron fist by the Tesserarchy, a sort of mixture between Centerparks and Soviet Russia. Discrete locations are provided, along with the number of guards, and multiple methods of entering the city, both known and unknown, are provided. Following actual logic, any armed band that looks organized and pays the fee to keep their weapons will immediately attract attention from ZE CENTERPARKS POLEEZ.  

The atmosphere is one of subtle S&S, sun-lit collonades, crumbling aquaducts, brightly painted houses with a backdrop of menace, mystery and ancient technology. The festival itself is eerie, a team of orphans raised by the Temple of the Night is led through a mysterious gateway into a realm of infinite pleasure. All others who attempt to enter are deterred by a fanatical order of warrior-monks.“ Anyone setting foot here will be rushed by the observant fanatics and beaten to death if they don’t flee immediately.”. Hell yeah! The Tesserarchy itself is painted, not in lurid, grotesque sweeps, but restrained, carefully considered strokes. Melan has a tendency to imply instead of stating outright.

 Megakrates, Lord of Akrasia is a middle-aged man, noted for a greying beard and wine-red nose. His gaze often appears confused and uncomprehending, but his thinking is fast and precise, and his nature merciless. He is limp in the right leg. Clothing is usually a simple toga, but he wears a pair of iron gauntlets either as a lucky charm or a sign of his station, and carries an ornamented, heavy metal rod.  

This is one area where I would have probably included a notoriety system akin to something like City of Skulls, with a series of example infractions and the type of response this would provoke from the authorities (i.e. walking around with arms and a plan à Tailed, attempted murder of secret police à triple gates, send triple strength guard patrol to any known location, Tesserarchy moves into the Palace UNLESS the Festival is in place etc. etc.) but it is not strictly necessary for play as there are in fact instructions for what each of the Tesserarchy does if they feel credibly threatened.

This module does science-fantasy right. Wrong Science Fantasy describes technology in colloquial 21st century English and renders it mundane. Right Science Fantasy uses ambiguous terminology (i.e. not Robot but Automaton, Extractor, Diambroid, Kinetic Cube etc. etc.) and its devices are surrounded by an aura of strangeness and unpredictability. The difference between technology and magic should be somewhat ambiguous. Megakrates has access to a hovering bell of impenetrable glass that he can retreat into. Both the party as well as their enigmatic assassins, who exist only as a collection of stat points, come equipped with a selection of these strange devices; A cube of force that can lift up to 500 kg (suck it Imperial system bitches). A device that has a 1/3 chance of extracting someone’s brain (no save) after the second round. A palace tower that is actually a rocket ship (and yes it is in fact possible to launch it by pressing buttons like an idiot).

This wide roadway connects the Agora with the Processional. Already crowded at the time of preparations for the rush of pilgrims, this is a place to buy all kinds of curios: glass items, exotic drinks, dead lizards preserved in oil, hookahs and lucky talismans made of Etunian amber.

The module’s subtlety, terseness and muted intricacy can work against it if one is not careful. Single sentences hold entire avenues of infiltration. Otag Gash the Factor is one of the few who has unrestrained access to the palace. Handing this information to the party would push them in a certain direction and ruin something of the open-endedness of the adventure. Some sort of cheat-sheet that collects the answers to frequently asked questions would probably make it easier to respond to any information gathering attempts, as well as notations of what information is known to what class of person. The tension between the Akrasians and the Tyrant’s Etunian Guard, elite nomad mercenaries, is another tiny detail that can easily be played upon by cunning, devious bastard PCs.

Fantastical creatures are tastefully interwoven with the fabric of the adventure and add a delicious touch of the alien. The Royal gardens with Peacockatrices, parks with patrols of fanatics and giant blue tarantulas, the components of D&D have been delicately coverted so they blend seamlessly with the alien environs.  

What else? I appreciate the fact that the structures of the Four have the feel and appearance of real structures more then complicated dungeons, and as such often have multiple means of ingress and procedures for what people will be allowed entry. Locations within the city are noted and most if not all of the are likely to come up if the GM needs it. The notoriously crowded tavern of Diocles could be used to lose a tail. The Bath house is a prime candidate for information gathering (it says so itself!).

There is also the question of what has been omitted. A random encounter table is nowhere to be found, but here a random encounter table would only distract from the careful planning followed by the frenetic and surely destructive action that is to follow. A complicated timeline would have cluttered things up, instead the date is fixed…vaguely, the length of the Festival is set and the changing conditions are marked under each entry. The composition of the Procession and the EXACT ROUTE are described also, which is, again, perfect, because immediately a plan pops up where you use a Kinetic Cube to Throw a fucking Stone Block on the procession as it passes through the Aquaduct, then follow it up with all of your explosives during the last days of the festival. MAPS ACTUALLY WORK BITCHES. But then of course you go OH PRINCE HOW DO YOU GET ON THE AQUADUCT but that is actually one of the first things that is covered in the text. The Aquaduct can also be used to come in through the backdoor of the wizard’s tower. This is the good shit.  

There’s probably something to be said for defining the terms of engagement of the rival assassins a bit better, as written it is implied they are going to try to dispose of the PCs without drawing undue attention to themselves (as the Arx is likely to be terribly embarrassed if its initial proclamation is uncovered). Likewise, I think I would have included a carebear description of what happens when the inevitable pitched battle in the streets begin, not only with the Tesserarchy, but city-wide. The total strength of the garrison would have been good to know, though again as written it can be approximated or inferred. But these are minor nitpicks that do not represent significant barriers to running this adventure. This is a terrific, science-fantasy spy thriller of a module, a spiritual successor to Temple of the Frog, brimming with bizarre atmosphere and it somehow manages to do so without devolving into Gonzo or other outré weirdness. It demands that you read it with an eye for detail, that you think on your feet, and that your players think on their feet also. There is no convenient female rebellion leader who needs no man just waiting for some help to overthrow the Tesseratriarchy. This adventure will require the full power of a 5-7 level party, honed by years of DnD under the tutelage of a subtle and merciless GM, but what a fine thing it is, to have one’s cake and eat it, to witness swords, sandals, laserbeams and sorcery and not have to do so with an ironic nudge nudge wink wink or the ghastly clamor of younger men.

Gabor Lux. We pronounce your work, which is humble in production value and of comparative brevity, to set an exemplary standard for module cobblers and OSRmen throughout the land, in inventiveness superb, in potential and intricacy sublime, and we are honored to shine some much needed light on your earlier efforts. We therefore award this work the highest rating that we recognize, that of Five stars out of Five.

This fine work is offered freely on his website.

[1] I am fortunately not alone. http://unvisiblecitadel.blogspot.com/2015/05/melan-gabor-lux-bibliography-and.html


7 thoughts on “[Review] In the Name of the Principle! (Swords & Magic); Science Fantasy Done Right

  1. When people say do you use modules…

    I say

    I USE LUX

    P.S. if anyone has those nice gm resources Prince mentioned would be nice to have at the table, please link them here and this is as good as seeded.

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  2. I remember playing this adventure on our little annual Hungarian OSR con, where it was run by Melan himself. My memories are hazy thanks to the copious amounts of beer we consumed during and after the event, but I do remember blowing up the entire fucking street under Megakrates, and learning during our escape that the mysterious assassins who were harassing us weren’t his men, but our employer’s. Good times!

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  3. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adventure from Melan I wouldn’t want to put in the hopper for whenever PC’s choices make it the right time for de lux

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  4. I too remember it playing at that con with Tamás. The ending was incredibly satisfying: Gábor colouring over half the avenue on the elaborate city map in front us while imitating the sound of an explosion. Good stuff.

    I also ran it years later for my own group. Big success. The extractor special item was used to great effect (and its description is still quoted by my players whenever the topic of crazy items/abilities comes up).

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  5. Although I have yet to run it, Systema Tartarobasis has captivated me for over twelve years, you will be in heaven if you liked “Principle”

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