[Review] Strabonus (C&C 3PP); Monument to the Ancients

[Adventure]
Strabonus (2004)

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is very possible there are shades of Caverns of Thracia, the best adventure that I have still not reviewed, in here, so do not quote me on it.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.

****


31 thoughts on “[Review] Strabonus (C&C 3PP); Monument to the Ancients

  1. I like what you’re saying about riddles needing to be properly embedded into the lore of a place, puzzles are probably the same way…I still am pleased about a bunch of fire-loving goblins leaving matchstick puzzles over fire runes. Is that why tombs are the most classic style of dungeon, because it makes sense for the traps, riddles, puzzles, and even guardians/keys to be somewhat contrived?

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    1. These various game-elements do make more sense in a Tomb then in a living breathing environment but Tombs are probably the first thing everyone thinks about when you explain the general concept of a dungeon as a labyrinth infested with traps, monsters and buried treasure to them.

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  2. I didn’t read the review because I am no longer interested in Melan’s work. Melan knows he was admired in ancient times – 2010 – and is producing lazy boring stuff now for cash. That’s OK he is getting old and has no fresh ideas.

    Back in 2009 Premier wrote up a campaign journal on Dragonsfoot and those few pages for me have been a peak in my forum/blog enjoyment. DM Melan – Gggax AD&D (of sorts) – Premier’s write-up. In fairness I have to give one third credit to each, but having digested so much of Melan’s material my artistic heart gives Premier the balance.

    My experience playing AD&D for decades is that I have randomly come across one-off players who blow away my friend-players and me too as DM in their imagination, improvisation and wit – words- personality. It is like confronting a professional actor or comedian. You then have to up your game, while enjoying the beauty of their personality, the DM has to retain authority without spoiling the brilliance of that very rare player.

    https://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=26&t=34856

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    1. The Melan stuff I’ve reviewed is 2004-2008 so far and has been excellent. I’ve got a copy of Xyntillian ready so we can resolve the issue but for that I want to redo Tegel Manor first.

      Thank you for the link. Most GMs I see find such creativity very difficult to handle, it requires confidence in one’s own abilities. But yes, well said, a good player can elevate the game in ways that cannot easily be turned into a how-to guide and therefore receives little attention while contributing immensely to the enjoyment of the group. Its probably a truism that this arms race for better modules would be outstripped by the arms-race for better players, but those are a rarity, difficult to harness. Perhaps some sort of good-player detection and recruitment document would suffice?

      “In each OSRmans comment section, there are two Kents eternally at war with one another. A Kent of Goodness, who deigns to share his undeniable insight and decades of experience on AD&D, and a Kent of Evil, who heeps drunken scorn upon one’s efforts and those of others.”
      “Which Kent wins?”
      “The Kent you feed.”

      Liked by 3 people

    1. In my perfect OSR, hard-eyed freemen will march into the wilderness with their inheritance spent on steel and iron rations and return, harrowed and blood-spattered, with the death screams of humanoids still ringing in their ears. And for a time, the women, modestly dressed, will giggle and cheer as they display the scalps and trophies they have taken, and occasionally some reward will be bestowed upon some fair-faced adventuring chap, but this will happen behind closed doors, and decently.

      But in time, the cheers fade, and the admiration is replaced by fear. They arrive in silence, caked with old blood and filth that they no longer notice, laden with spoils they stop caring about the second they pass the gates. They could retire ten times over from the gold they have won but they always return. Some of them have died and returned from death many times. Their laughter is harsh and cruel, and they speak in the barking togues of the Orc among themselves. At times they will empty satchels filled with goblets set with precious stones, looted gold, semi-precious stones. “Arrows. Rations. Oil.” All the sons and ne’erdowells of the village flock to their banner and march with them to some forlorn deep on the promise of glory, many do not return. At times they will simply take what they need.

      To such men, what is some exotic courtesan, if not merely another humanoid? For that matter, what is another man? What worth the life of a human child if not 2 XP?

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  3. == Perhaps some sort of good-player detection and recruitment document would suffice?

    It is breathtakingly random which few players have that spark of talent. Their skill is independent of any interest in genre, reading, or academic intelligence. It comes from some blend of self-confidence and untapped imagination.

    The campaign I linked to proves Melan is a great DM but I stand by my assertion that at best modules reproduce about a 5/10 of the real experience of gaming. there is a better way – something like well written write ups (1 in 100 pass because they are downstream from the DM) and excellent maps and architectural drawings.

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    1. It will take me time to absorb the provided links, however the quality has been good so far. Well written play reports probably give a better view of what it is like to experience the campaign. Maps and architectural drawings mystify me. I concur instinctively that they give an impression of the game but I cannot quite put my finger on why it is true. Even my very casual B/X mystara game using only published modules and the wilderness encounter tables from B10 and the Rules Cyclopedia is elevated immensely by having hex map with settlements. Object permanence is key. From a map and some sparse settlement details, all manner of ruling figures, NPCs and relationships must naturally be unfolded.

      I’m getting into Herodotus right now and I have permitted myself to start Mistress of Mistresses, which I expect to savour over the course of a few weeks as something that I will not experience again.

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    1. They are very harsh on B5, which is the quintessential, nay, platonic B5 module. C1 I will no doubt tackle at some point. I remember reading it a long time ago, very interesting, there are minor echoes of it in Palace. The various ritualistic rooms that, like a real tomb, represent stages of the departed’s journey to the afterlife elevate it.

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  4. Verily! This adventure grew out of an organic sandbox campaign centred on the NE quarter of JG’s City State campaign map, ca. 2003. Much of the campaign arc involved a company of neutral/evil-aligned PCs (a splinter group of our main party) making trouble in various local towns and communities, and eventually getting run out of town to the tune of Yakety Sax when their deals went south. After wearing out their welcome at a number of places, though, they unexpectedly overthrew the reign of an evil cleric (c.f. Slaughter in the Salt Pits, from Fight On! magazine), and established themselves as the much more benevolent overlords of a large mining village. Strabonus came afterwards.

    I mention this because it was a module placed in a larger context, and never established as a “mission” that had to be checked off: the gnolls were constant trouble, so a punitive expedition was assembled and led into the tomb, and many of the gnolls were put down along with the minotaur. The lower sections could be partially explored, and there were plans to return on a later occasion, but the campaign – and our group at the time – fell apart soon afterwards when multiple players moved to work in the UK. (Two are still there, happily married.) So the treasures of Strabonus were never truly recovered!

    The cover, a masterpiece of old-school artwork (if I say so myself) depicts, left to right: Charnan the Permanent Fiend, CN Fighter 6; Narg the evil half-orc Cleric 5; and Tricky Boffo, CN hobbit Magic-User/Thief 3/2. Elek the Circumciser, gnome Magic-User 4 (yes, exactly the kind of player you imagine!), and Morgen the Dwarf Fighter 4 were killed by the gnolls! (And Morgen died because, I cite from the Hungarian version, “he was too cheap to buy those throwing axes.” Sad!)

    I think the final trap is rather mean without at least a hint or legend to point towards it, although at the time, frequent and smart player use of Augury spells (which I am not seeing so much in recent campaigns, even from the likes of Mr. Premier) made similar challenges more bearable than it looks on the basis of the text.

    I am rather proud of Thagon the Thick and his smirking challenge. He never even showed up in person in the campaign, but established himself very firmly in the players’ imagination as “That Fucker”.

    And of course, gnolls. Love to hate them. Although akchually, the campaign did in fact go into the moral quandaries of gnoll ethnic cleansing, many years before these concerns became a fashionable grandstand for absolute midwits.

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    1. Wilderlands of High Fantasy is a real bucket-list campaign setting, probably still the most expansive, diverse and powerful sandbox ever made, and the swords & sandals/Lahnkmar/Frazetta’s death dealer aesthetic bleeds from every pore.

      The module as a sandbox location to be explored as opposed to a ding-an-sich shows in minor things, the sojourn to Thagon, the more cryptic nature of the location of Strabonus’s final resting place, and maybe the juxtaposition of the frenetic pitched battle vs the slow and steady exploration of the tomb? Whatever. It is a fine job.

      R.e. the GQ: I recall a moment when running Red Prophet Rises and one of my players discovered there were humanoids in the pens in the vale and remarked “ah good, the nomads aren’t all bad then.”

      I take inspiration from R.Scott Bakker’s take on Orcs, that is to say, they are monsters who are capable of crude emulation of the rudiments of speech and thought, but their nature is fundamentally geared towards violence, plunder and treachery. You and the Orc are just not going to get along. You might make a temporary truce if you are stronger then they would prefer, but even this is only as good as the sword that upholds it. Gnolls are interesting, a combination of laziness, sadistic cruelty and absolute ferocity in battle. Hobgoblins in my campaigns are the most humanlike in that they can grasp complicated tactics and are capable of organization but they apply this organization solely to the business of expanding their territory through force and subjugation. I like the B10 Gnolls, very primal, reminds me of the description of the Germanic tribes in Tacitus or the Massenians in Herodotus.

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      1. Not a lot I think, probably because the discussion predates it. I think it popped up somewhere around the mid 90s as games started to become more about deep immersion and story and less about overcoming obstacles. The two approaches are very different and thus what is an asset in one is actually a detriment in the other.

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  5. I’m really enjoying the EMDT reviews. Gabor Lux is the most talented, hardest working guy in the OSR scene and his work deserves more attention. I agree with every point in this review. The room descriptions are short and striking, the mood is mysterious. The biggest weakness, as usual, is the maps. A side view of the mound and maybe diagrams of the more complicated traps would have been nice. But it’s also a free module, so expectations should be tempered accordingly.

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    1. I don’t usually do free stuff for that very same reason, but I have been known to make the odd exception. Anything that I do end up reviewing that is PWYW gets subjected to the same standards as a professional product, with maybe some wiggle room between a ** and a ***.

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      1. Reviewing free modules is important because it they provide a baseline for what an OSR product is worth. If Tomb of the Serpent Kings, The Lair of the Lamb, and Strabonus are free, then anything that costs money should be as good or better.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. That is an oversimplification, but you are not wrong that they are a decent baseline. There are standards that you can place on a published work with a fixed cost that you cannot apply to a free project, but there are (inevitably) works that are free that surpass 90% of published works (you see this in some mod communities). However, most PWYW/free stuff is unremarkable. There’s a deniability to them on the part of the author and lack of gravitas on the side fo the buyer that hampers them imo.

        Tomb of the Serpent Kings is…not bad but I don’t think its good. Skerples tried to make a tutorial while having a limited understanding of the game.

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    2. I should have qualified my comment by saying free modules provide a baseline in a broad, economic sense. Or to put it another way, if a $5 PDF adventure isn’t as good as Melan’s free stuff, or even a fair-to-middling dungeon like Tomb of the Serpent Kings, it might be shovelware.

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  6. Hey, Prince. Why don’t you do the same as Bryce and put the links for the adventures at the end of the reviews? Great review as always, thanks!

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  7. Maybe beside judgements of value – stars out of five, there may be colour judgements which readers might view as a matter of taste.

    So for example ‘Melan’ choosing an OSR Gamer completely at Random:

    Adventure Style — Vanilla AD&D
    Adventure Ideas — Broad: Ancient & Renaissance, Knowledgeable.
    Typography — Ugly, Ignorant.
    Language — Pedestrian, Schoolboyish, Uninteresting, non-native English.
    Persistence Over the Years — Dogged, Unflagging, The Tedious Undying, Never Give Up.
    Maps — Excellent City Maps with Poor Incomplete Descriptions.
    Maps — Naive Wilderness and Tactical Maps,
    Gabor Lux’s Personality #1: Unengaging, Arrogant for a Bald Dweeb with No Presence who is Afraid of the Mildest of Adversaries.
    Gabor Lux’s Personality #2: Popular In Hungary — A Weird Country. Anyone Popular in his Hungary is a NOT a Fascist. Anyway 2021-Fascist is a GOOD Thing.
    General D&D Knowledge — Middling, Surprising for such a Long Term Vanilla D&Der.
    Literary Knowledge — Of a Teenage Girl.

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  8. Occasional blood sports among commenters are permitted, I think they keep you lot in shape. When YDIS was decent it was good sport. There’s a way to go about it that isn’t shit and this is close. Wit, elegance, brevity. Detached irony, the ratio between comment and reply length, the occasional vicious kidney shot…I miss that sentiment when interacting with normies sometimes.

    Advantage Melan for a quick riposte to the left knee.

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  9. Hah, my aggression is the same, the love I have for people and the game is lost in text, though!
    Glad you see some value in the ‘cast. Please share if you think it is worth anybodies while, we have no english lang. channels, except a thread in KnK.

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    1. I don’t frequent social media but I shall be glad to share it, maybe with my next post?

      I have been less then charitable in our first interaction I think. That was a fine podcast, and the love and devotion for the game is obvious. I apologize for some initial cantankerousness, though you held up well regardless. Give us a hug you Kraut bastard.

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