No Artpunk Entry #13: Dust & Stars

File:Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099.jpg
Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, Émile Signol

Dust & Stars
16 Pages + 3 maps
Lvl 9 – 12

Settembrini, a friend of the blog and Generalissimo of the Zockbock OSR podcast (check out his interview with Patrick Stuart here), has seen fit to enter the listings with a high-level science fantasy offering that might end up destroying your campaign world! Highly imaginative, it is also not without its share of problems.

The premise is based on pretty deep Greyhawk/DnD lore and ties into the war between the Mind-flayer Eternal Empire and the Order of Celestian at the dawn of time. There’s references to the Scarlet Brotherhood, the Underdark and the Kingdom of Ghouls later on. Once an important refining facility that pulled much needed rare elements from the heart of a captured fucking STAR, now its original owners have been killed, the city that used to surround it erased from memory, and it is guarded by the last of the alien serpent men whose civilization perished with their Stolen sun. Almost half a page of exposition is a bit long, but damn cool. Conversely, hooks are a bit generalized. Possible module starters: Mission by a Celestian Temple, isn’t bad but its general. Specific hooks ftw.

Largest tower floor

Writing is decent enough but is at times a bit overly descriptive. Occasionally Stars & Dust will go into descriptions of what rooms were once for or explain too much, like in this instance:

On a small pedestal in the center are two large footprints. Here, the earth elemental could ponder, pause and thus rest. The pedestal is magical and allows to understand and translate any language. This is also where the sorting elemental was given his orders and instructions. Two chestnut-sized chunks of milky gray rock lie on the floor. If you take the trouble to look at them closely, for examply by  determining their hardness, you can see that they are rough diamonds worth 6,000 GP each. These were the eyes of the elemental.

In general it is better to leave these things up to the GM to interpret unless the understanding is absolutely vital to running the adventure.

The dungeon proper is a so-called ‘monster commune’ a loosely allied group of diverse critters that inhabit the upper regions of the tower under the leadership of a Rakshasa called Ravana (after the Demon Ruler of the Universe in the Rahmayana probably). Two bored Eryines, an Otyug cook, two hired Intellect Devourers and a band of Minotaurs. Relationships are lovingly portrayed via a diagram. It’s got a sort of verisimilitude to it that I dig, although the entry sometimes falls prey to a tendency to overexplain the presence of every monster, which is not always warranted.  

I see an opportunity for improvement here. Much attention is paid to the relationship between the different monsters, which is good and aids any interaction between them and the PCs, but how they deal with the PCs is left untouched. I would have liked to see some more attention paid either to Ravana’s interaction with the PCs (if they try some diplomacy) or an order of battle (If the PCs choose to attack, after all the tower is fairly small). As written I envision a systematic room-by-room extermination, possibly foreshadowed by some banter, but I can see no holes or vulnerabilities in the various relationships for the PCs to exploit. The monsters do not have hidden treasure, which sucks because now you won’t have the scene where the PCs line up the survivors and tell them that the first one that tells them where the treasure is gets to live, then tells them to dig their own grave etc etc.

The map is a civilized affair, Four tower floors with two sub-towers and a basement. A good opening set piece, a curving bridge without supports over a sea of killing silt guarded by one of the all but immortal serpent men. I think probably a lone guardian should have something badass and defiant to shout to a band of murderhoboes, urge them to surrender, brag about his invicible might, tell them that they are unworthy to visit this tower etc. etc. Levels are fairly open, and because of the spiral stairway, can be tackled in any order, though they do feel a bit crowded with the amount of monsters in D&S. Secret doors are absent, as are funky super science natural hazards, (one door at least has many warnings carved upon it, warning of certain doom), with the exception of the Star Pump Room, which has all manner of things that explode or if damaged risk filling the air with lethal superheavy particles.  

For god sake don’t open the damn Star Pump

Treasure first. Good use of advanced materials as a stand-in for jewelry. Stainless steel slide rules worth 5000 gp to someone who could use them, 100 gp otherwise is good. Fine lenses. Rare ore. A giant telescope. An ancient atlas of Oerth. Sexy Eriynes underwear etc. Fun stuff. I would have liked to see a bit more hidden treasure. Maybe a vault somewhere. Having monsters with concealed hoards turns every murderhobo into a gentleman spy. Suddenly its prisoners, nonlethal, charm spells, ESP, espionage, reconnaissance etc. etc. Good unique item btw, Bulette-lard (items smeared with it can cut stone like meat for 1 segment), and the Handle of Celestian (a grip that can reduce the weight). It is slightly in danger of violating the ban on new magic items however.

A major set piece is the Star Pump itself, which is a fragile and very dangerous construction that can be used to distill any number of rare elements from the captured STAR ELEMENTAL and has the potential to DESTROY THE PLANET if the wrong fucking buttons are touched. I dig that. That’s a good, very dangerous set piece, especially in combination with the Intellect Devourers (a fucking evil monster choice if there ever was one) moving into it and fucking with the control panel.

The largest problem with Stars & Dust, as I see it, is the encounters proper. It’s combat heavy, with rooms unoccupied by the commune guarded by an Invisible Stalker, or filled with 8 Giant Spiders, or countless serpents, a captured Bodak, or hordes of the alien serpent men, an unleashed Starfire elemental etc. It all feels a bit isolated and a bit crowded (every room on floor one has a hostile monster in it). The module discusses the possibility of creating some sort of external threat, like a Mind Flayer or Scarlet Brotherhood patrol, coming over to cause a ruckus. I would have liked to see that worked out, or perhaps a captured prisoner, a chance to sow division in the ranks? An opportunity to use some monsters against the others?  

This is a rare incidence of a more dynamic encounter.

Here stands a clay golem, created at the time by Palawal Fatn. It has three characters carved into the soft clay on its forehead. The first has been wiped away with Tiger Paw. One round after opening the door, the clay golem attacks unless you quickly carve a “CLSTN” (for Celestian) or a Nonagram into it, in which case it follows the scribe’s commands. Sacred signs of other gods cause the golem to fall into a stupor.

Keep players on their toes. Obviously the Star Pump is an epic reward for even high level PCs, and operating it will attract Mind Flayers (number unspecified, but date is not) so one is unlikely to be able to hold on to it long. I also like it that the PCs have the opportunity to talk to the (star)fire Elemental Prester, thereby gaining an opportunity to figure out what the hell is going on with this thing. There’s good potential there, it feels like a Sandbox location, something you drop somewhere on the map for the PCs to explore if they feel like it.

Bonus points for this description of the new Serpent Men.

They don’t breathe, they don’t sleep, they don’t speak, they don’t age, their blood smells of cinnamon & metal shavings. The last remnants of the serpent creatures of Prester, transformed to tireless guardian-avengers.

Very Respectable entry. Definitely a few points for improvement, but I dig the boldness of it, the high concept, especially considering both high level entries and Science Fantasy are very hard to combine with the enforced orthodoxy of the contest. And proper Science Fantasy DnD is a rare breed as is. Throw it in your campaign and have a blast (maybe literally).

16 thoughts on “No Artpunk Entry #13: Dust & Stars

  1. Note that it has been playtested with two groups. 6 Deaths in total. It is playable in two evenings. For high level groups, entering via windows or the roof is to be expected.


  2. THX for liking the maps!

    Re Deaths and Encounters: The two groups were both understrength, below the recommended 58 levels. One group lost 3 to the Bodak alone due to utter disorganization and carlessness.
    As for no battle plans, my idea was to write it down in a way, so the DM knows exactly what each denizen is about. And from that plus the tactical situation, I thought everything would follow naturally. Like in an ASL scenario: Map, forces, objectives -> go!.
    Still, the writing did not transport properly how I ran it and I shall refine my humble attempts in the future.

    Nearly every encounter can and was avoided by one group or the other, solved through diplomacy (Group two sweet talked Ravana and then sprung on him, were group 1 bumbled into his room and hell was raised), subterfuge, surprise round bash (most groups at that level can dispatch an Otyug etc. quietly in no time if inclined and prepared), feeding of snakes or somesuch. Only the star pump room was a big battle both times, but there are ways to avoid it if one is smart.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. @ Settembrini:

    Love the podcast, though I’ve only been able to listen to your English episodes (my German is good enough to order beer and schnitzel, that’s about it). The non-first language thing is interesting to me (I’m always considering translating my work into Spanish)…do you think Prince’s critique of your writing would be applicable if you were writing in your native German? I.e. do you think it would be easier to express ideas and concepts such that your text wouldn’t suffer for being “overly descriptive?”

    I am no Greyhawk lore master, but I definitely appreciate both an injection of sci-fi AND an ancient race of diabolical snake men. Good stuff. Hope to read this eventually.
    : )


  4. Glad you like the casts!
    Well language is a thing in the podcast, that is why we only do occasional english episodes and probably be mostly German in the future (the KnK-guest episode is in editing, though!). One is more prone to rambling or mannerisms, maybe me more than others. It is harder to be witty or sharp. But I see it as a great chance we can talk to each other across the globe at all! So it is what it is.

    As for writing, language barriers can be overcome, as greater men than me have shown (Melan!). I do know that I changed the grammar to shorter sentences in english, because my original constructions would not work. I was not aiming at terseness in the original, though. I did try to give all info, not with any ambience text, but by plain description,

    Also I did not aim for a good english style, just clarity. If I was aiming for a better style in the future, maybe even a terse one, I would write it in english first and not do a translation.

    I shall experiment further.

    Liked by 1 person

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