The Garden of Al-Astorion (2006)
Gabor Lux (E.D.M.T.)
Castles & Crusades
Lvl 6 -9
I have been on my best behavior and thus, like all good boys, I deserve a treat. The treat is Gabor Lux’s Garden of Al-Astorion, a free module for Castles & Crusades positively dripping with S&S. Ah, Sweet S&S Modules, how often do you beckon, how few times you answer when I call upon you! The S&S scene is catfish heavy. I prepare, mentally, for disappointment, a death of the soul, when I hear those words uttered.
This is an earlier Gabor Lux module and it lacks something of the terse precision that we would see in subsequent works but this does not diminish the power of this exotic fantasy. There is an art to making a good S&S module and few authors, despite the odd flounce or iconic image or concept lifted from the pages of Kull or Clark Ashton Smith, actually get it. There is some intangible combination of theme, encounter and description coupled with restraint that resonates with the worlds of Leiber, Howard, Smith, Wagner, Anderson. It is not gonzo, nor is it, god help us, dark fantasy .
Magic in S&S is mysterious and dangerous. The world is savage, ancient and echoes with pagan myth; savage rites of blood sacrifice, fierce and dangerous wilderlands, inhabitants that reek of the primordial, magic is an echo of faerie-tales and myths half-consciously recalled. Garden of Al-Astorion sometimes feels like a checklist of a good S&S module.
The premise is overly long, but this was 2006, before the rising of the Holy Bryce and the Utility Jihad that would leave all a whole generation of pay-by-the-word padders and dissemblers of the Hasbro Throne drowning in their own blood. A full page of backstory, two columns, laden with hints to a greater world beyond; Once set in JG’s Wilderlands, and truly it deserves no better setting, it has been adapted to serve the City of Vultures and Melan’s own Fomalhaut/City of Vultures, surely no less S&Serish. Al-Astorion, cleric of Emore, goddess of flowers, forsakes the vulgar city life for a pilgrimage to a secluded valley, littered with the remnants of the ancient world. Struck by its beauty, he resolved to create there the garden of his dreams. As he slowly goes mad, his creations become increasingly dangerous. A few survivors of an expedition to his valley tell tall tales of enchanted fruit, horror, riches and great peril. Enter le PCs!
The module is osentisibly for Castles & Crusades, but this is a later conversion, and it should not be very difficult to restore it back to the wholesome AD&D that is visible underneath its outer coating of ascending AC, Attack bonuses, Ability Score based saving throws and difficulty classes. All this can be converted with a slight snap of the fingers, with only the damage rolls requiring some careful evaluation. There is nary an ugly feat or dirty 3e spell in sight, for which we thank the Gods. One notable difference is the treasure, decent for C&C, a beggar’s ransom for the mid- high range AD&D.
Like most of Gabor’s work the module utilizes a steadfastly traditional format , elevated to a higher standard of fantastical adherence, individual encounters, subtlety and creativity in order to distinguish itself. The DnDishness is given a proper context. The effect is potent, though one wonders if there is not, perhaps, a bit too much S&S in this secluded valley. There is not only a secluded valley with animals thought long-exctinct , there is a tribe of psionic man-apes and their ape-god , a cyclopean temple of Deep Ones , a piece of technology from a crashed space-ship  and THEN we get to the magical garden. The tone wavers a little. There’s a group of comically stupid Sprites that want to get the fuck rid of an annoying Memphit, this is a funny encounter and it would absolutely work. Then there is the Garden, which is terrifying in a way that only a place of great beauty that hides terrible lethality can be. They both work, but they exist on a different wavelength.
There is a sumptuous list of rumors available to whetten the PCs appetites but I must admit being somewhat perturbed by the lack of a random encounter table? What is this? What if the PCs, damnable slackers, do what PCs always do and expand all of their spells on the first combat, then yawn, take a nap, and return to the fray, refreshed and none the wiser. The expedition, it is true, would last weeks, but the lack of random encounters is the single glaring absence. It was a different time one considers.
There is effective use of foreshadowing in the module, placed at bottlenecks to an otherwise almost entirely sandboxery area. The moment you enter the valley…BAM. Gravesite of a previous adventurer. The moment you get to the stairs of the ziggurat that holds the Garden of Al-Asterion. Message cylinder. Not easily found.
“Nothing remains here but nefarious hatred and demented malevolence. If you life is dear, turn back – we didn’t, and paid the price of our greed in full. – Tal Unnar”
Intelligent humanoids, by and large, have some routine and follow at least rudimentary tactics, allowing for strategy in any sallies made against them. The prose is lengthy and thick and seeks to explain more then we always want to know, but it is possessed of a fine atmosphere to fire the GM’s imagination; “…he temple is a vaulted natural cavern modified to look less irregular. Grotesque humanoid idols squat and kneel in small niches in the wall, small stone bowls standing before them. Their depressions contain ancient grease mixed with soot, the remains of old fires. The paintings on the wall are much more vivid and almost completely intact: they depict grinning man-apes with sloping brows, clad in rich clerical garments.”
There should be a salient example from the original catalogue of TSR for this model of adventure; a wilderness area peopled with several monster lairs (with maps that are decently complex for their relatively short size) with one feature that is the focus of the adventure. There should be, but nothing comes to mind. G2 has the right idea but is geographically limited. The wilderness section of B10. Maybe something later, WGS5?
There are plenty of new monsters in the module, the bulk of them horrific new plant creatures, though enough from the standard catalogue remain to retain some connection to Core D&D. This type of design too is nice, it shows subtlety. Existing carnivorous plants like Assassin Vines and Venus Fly Traps are supplemented with new antagonists like Purple Moss, the Terrible Flaying Tree (may be negotiated with), Cobra Flowers and Vampiric Rosebushes. These new additions serve to give context to the whole. And good on you, using Scrag statts without regeneration for the Deep Ones, that’s exactly what I like to see. Elegance. Precision. Do not do work you don’t have to do.
Let me give you an example where this subtlety and fine touch is demonstrated. There is one item in a Wizard’s Tower. It’s ALMOST a Mirror of Life-trapping . Yeah we all hate those. This one…is better. It functions like one, but it exchanges its occupants with the person starting into it. The guy inside is a 10th level knight, has been there for fuck knows how long, arrogant dick, looks down on peasants etc. etc. etc. But not evil. Will under no circumstance look in the mirror again. The mirror is heavy and fragile. What do you do? GREAT ENCOUNTER. Almost every encounter in this thing feels like that. Like a normal D&D encounter but fortified in such a way that it runs BETTER. It’s not that Lux is a good writer, he is, but it’s that he knows what he is doing, he understands the capabilities of this game and a way to get the most out of it. Statue of a god that you can pray to BAM Tree with seemingly precious gemstone fruit do you date pluck it BAM encounter with trash mob enemies in incredible amount, making it very deadly BAM battle with illusionary spectre kings as they lament the doom of their long-forgotten kingdom BAM the talking door of the wizard’s tower can’t be forced but if you manage to out philosophise its guardian he might let you in BAM.
There isn’t really faction play as such, but there ARE plenty of opportunities for negotiation. An Ogre Mage that will invite characters to dine with him while they discuss matters, this is the type of stuff that I like to see. The variety gives a substance to the world that is being portrayed, where monsters can have goals and exist for reasons outside of being PC fodder.
This is not Gabor’s best module. In 2006 the Magyar were not even fully mobilized. But it’s a breath of fresh air. A breath of fresh air that is not afraid to fucking kill you with an odd dickish trap. Hell yeah. Keep people on their toes. Then comes the garden proper, easily the best part. I knew it was good when I predicted that the third stairway would have some sort of cursed guardian on it in the manner of Faerie, and lo there he is, a former companion of the mad cleric, horribly transfigured. Of course he is. And yes climbing the plateau, an idiot solution, has been accounted for, even…flight! Suddenly we are reminded of C.A. Smith’s the Gardens of Adompha , or the fables of the Hesperides and their enchanted apples. The cleric proper? Total fucking asshole. Randomly rolled disposition, a thing I would later independently use for my cult leader in Palace of Unquiet Repose. Will the PCs attempt to restore him or try to dispatch of this hermit within his cave? He no longer receives spells but still wields the gift of Transmutation and Creation. And also Peacock Cockatrices are a fine invention. Marvelous. Chef’s kiss.
I am most dubious about the lack of random encounters, enabling the PCs to perhaps wear down their opponents with their 6th level characters a bit too easily. This is probably inconsequential, as the bulk of the deaths are likely to be caused by the assholish traps that have been daintily sprinkled throughout the module, without a doubt the most assholish a Mummy with a necklace of fireballs that has a chance to explode if the PCs use fire against it. What did we ever do to you Gabor?!? Also there are quite a few formidable monsters and opponents in this thing.
Garden of Al-Asterion is gloriously S&S, not as well-constructed as Strabonus or as creative as In The Name of the Principle! but a fine entry in a large body of work. If we overlook its overuse of tropes, its lack of random encounters and its rather husky text blocks, not to mention the fact it is statted for C&C, then we have ourselves something that is still better then the vast majority of stuff being put out there. How does he do it? Someday my divinations will make him reveal his secrets!
If I keep this up, I might end up using Kent’s suggestion of a split author + module rating, albeit in a separate post per Author. I think it would be worthwhile to rate works on an author scale.
Get it here, for free.
 I still recall, with heartrending grief, the scathing words of Noisms, as he compared my beautiful boy, the Red Prophet Rises, to Raymond E. Feist, and gave it a paltry 4 out of 5 stars. A new name was added to the Book of Grudges that day.
 I suggest this might be a good thing. There are formats like the GDQ, B or I series or for that matter Tegel Manor that can be copied wholeheartedly because they are meant to serve as templates and thus utilizing its structure does not mean the end result is merely a derivative because a great deal of variety is possible WITHIN the framework. Contrast with the S series, which relies, to a large part, on gimmicks and one-off trickeries. This is probably why attempts to replicate the Tomb of Horrors have yielded less then interesting results.
 Ref. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, or Conan’s Red Nails if one prefers
 Wonderfully there is no exact match but troglodytes and war with sub-human monstrosities are a recurring element in Howard’s Conan & dubiously, Lin Carter. It should be noted the Ape-God is not literally a god but merely a savage thing that is being worshipped as such, very S&S
 Lovecraft of course, though stories of actual fights against such monstrosities is more K.E. Wagner’s Bloodstone or Elric
 I’m going to cautiously put forward C.L. Moore as an early adopter of the trope.
 S&S is on the Brain. House of Leaves has ruined my capacity for brevity. Is the mirror of life-trapping traceable to H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Trap’?
 There are references to the worlds of Xiccarph and haunting reminisces of vistas of other worlds in the abandoned wizard’s tower, a very C.A.S. sort of Wizard