Gabor Lux (self-published)
Lvl 6 – 9
A while back, I posed a challenge to any would-be module cobblers, to resist the lure of the artpunk and come up with all manner of bizarre concepts and weird non-sensical creatures, to instead strive to master the conventional forms of D&D first, and strive to innovate when the basics are mastered. Today’s outing demonstrates well the merit of this approach.
Strabonus is an ancient entry by the inimitable Gabor Lux, and is set in the even more ancient Wilderlands of High Fantasy, the first published setting ever. Join me now, traveler, on an odyssey into a savage land of untamed wilderness, sandals, sorcery and sword. The warlord Strabonus, once known as the Lord of the Middle Seas, did lay waste to all the city-states of the Pazidan Peninsula. Now even the stones of his city have been torn up and broken. But his tomb remains yet to be found. Journey with me oh traveler, into the inhospitable lands of hex 4006.
Strabonus is a tomb adventure. How many have come before it. How difficult that is to excel in. And yet Lux nails it without even deigning to break out the Saturday night specials. That’s right children! There are no asslicking cat-hookers, Fuck Hitlers or Patrick Stuart in this badboy!!!
So how do you make it exciting once you are left with the trial version of D&D? That’s what we are going to discover today. It is very possible there are shades of Caverns of Thracia, the best adventure that I have still not reviewed, in here, so do not quote me on it.
There are no rumor tables or hooks to draw one in to the tomb of Strabonus. The introduction gives ample justification; Other treasure-seekers have gone before you and have not returned, but a band of Gnolls led by a Minotaur have set up shop in the upper levels, and are now launching raids against the surrounding settlements. Ample justification to check out what all the fuss is about.
The random encounter table is unostentatious, consisting merely of the intelligent defenders in the upper levels. A good addition. Tombs run the risk of becoming too static or boring and including an opening with an intelligent opponent avoids this problem, adding some variety to the whole. The directive of simple tactics utilized by the Gnolls (read: BURNING OIL AND FLANKING), and their division into squads, combined with the layout of the Hill proper and its multiple entrances to both upper and lower levels should provide for one hell of a challenge to the more brazen parties. In case the party decides to get smart the Gnolls are given simple habitation within the Tomb proper and instructions on what areas they avoid (as they fear the undead) so the GM has enough to riff off of that.
The description is sparse, but never generic. Imagery is teased out of the deeps of the subconscious. Plastered walls, naked greccan statues, narrow square tunnels. The format is reminiscent of the old JG modules.
After the dust has settled…silence. The tonal shift reminds me of Forgotten Shrine of Tharizdun, although the tomb proper is more standard fare. Riddles, traps, a rare few undead monsters and the odd living statue, all of it draped in a vaguely greccan miasma…and it’s TERRIFIC! How the fuck can that be good as its been done a million times, ye ask! Behold its power!
The map is a masterpiece, five levels that are connected in intricate ways via ramps, stairwells and a ladder. My only criticism here is that it takes a while to get used to the idea of what Stairs lead up and what stairs lead down, and it is not always immediately obvious to see where each ramp or well leads, or whether floor 1 is the top or the bottom (the top). I think a legend or minute notation would have improved it, but this is really a minor setback.
The traps are all the finest hits of the Tombs that exist within our Collective Unconscious. Falling blocks, rolling stones, spear traps. It’s not just the traps but how they are used. Traps are telegraphed…or you have a split second to make a decision, excellent. This foreshadowing doesn’t just apply to the Traps. There is an indestructible glass plug in the floor, showing the final resting place of Strabonus…but how to get there is a mystery. That’s great, that serves the dual purpose of establishing the existence of a motherload while simultaneously tantalizing the players with its existence. It’s also VERY HARD to find, but not impossible, ingenious players might tease just enough detail out of the scene to get an idea of where they have to start looking. There’s one exception. It already takes a monster to put a 60 foot pit trap in front of a stairway down with only a Dex save to save your ass but only Hitler himself would make the walls of said pit trap close to collapse so the whole edifice has a 50% chance of crumbling if you climb it before inspecting the wall.
Even the puzzle or riddle part is well done, very intricate. In order to gain access to the inner sanctum the Party must unveil the cryptic relationship between the shrine and the various items of Strabonus’s retainers. Every item to be rediscovered is protected in a different fashion. Each time you are given JUST enough information to complete the challenge, and not a single word more. Let me give you one example. There’s a room labelled ‘The Arrows of Ag.’ There’s a stone statue of a naked archer (very greek) holding five arrows. A plaque reads „Here is Ag, who was the greatest archer before death dulled his eyes.” Now what the fuck do you do? Perfect. Three swords labelled Contemplation, Plenty & War sticking in the ceiling. “Take that which you really desire.” That’s great.
There’s a sort of legerdermain to doing a proper tomb like this. Deep in our minds we understand that riddles are bullshit but if you embed them in the lore of the place you can create a plausible fiction while also giving the impression of a larger world. You see all these retainers and you get the impression Strabonus was one hell of a force to be reckoned with.
We see in Strabonus the resolution of the Artpunk challenge. There is a reason there is no Trap Manual in D&D. It is in these fiendish challenges, the intricate ballet of geometry, finely crafted riddle and killing artifice, that the creativity is poured, and what a pleasing edifice is raised as a result. A place to die in and die hard, but what lovely scenery for a grave.
This is a hard bastard of a tomb. After the initial brutal combat, combat is rare, hints are scarce and perils are great, and it will demand the full power of a 6-9 level party to make it all the way to the end. The final trap is particularly brutal to the incautious, and might end with a TPK. The whole area seems like something the PCs might explore for a time, then wander off to busy themselves with other areas, before returning to it once again. One area even NECCESSITATES that the players journey elsewhere to recover an item from a tomb robber. It’s well adapted to the prolongued campaign model of a hexcrawl. Treasure is doled out in trinkles with a veritable feast at the end, but still fairly low for multiple characters of 6th-9th level. Magic items are fairly plentiful. If you are one of the 3 remaining C&C players in existence you are in luck, but otherwise there is no reason you could not port this to AD&D with minimal adaptation decay and have yourself another fine location to dump in the Wilderlands. Nice-ah.