Caught in the Web of Past And Present
Swords And Wizardry
The End approaches, not with a whimper, but with a bang. From distant and exotic Hungary, written, nay, forged by the steady hand of Chomy, proofread by the inrreplacable Tamas Illes, and playtested by 5 young braves, most of which are named Gabor and one of which is fellow Merciless Merchant Ynas Midgard (hollah!), comes a module to shock, titillate, terrify, amaze, dazzle and inspire.
A party of adventurers has gone missing in the darkest of forests on their quest to slay a wicked beast preying on some merchant caravans. Short and punchy hook, the way I like it. Please put long backstory in an appendix where it cannot hurt anyone, unless you really do use all of it in the adventure. Several hooks, from friends of the missing adventurers to the merchant himself, offer to pay the adventurers if they retrieve the survivors and complete their old mission, and one particularly badass hook is by the merchant’s rival and offers money for you to retrieve the old team…so they can be tortured and killed. Harsh. Is Jon the boogey Man? No. He’s the guy you send to kill the fucking boogey man, is what passes through the mind. I’m missing the expendables hook, where the characters are all death row convincts sent to do the job the good guys weren’t strong enough to handle, but otherwise this is the stuff.
Suprisingly intricate backstory, told in a timeline format. Once a place of sanctuary and delight, the elven palace kind of turned sour when the mad elven general Xinemon, pissed off at his race’s slow defeat against the humans and pissed off that no one is willing to be part of his new crusade, he starts an evil suicide cult instead and ends up getting everyone killed, and the survivors cursed to turn into swans by the gods for their blasphemy, with only the original keeper imprisoned in a secret chamber in eternal slumber. Now a hellhole, corrupted by evil forest-dwellers and the living dead. Fairy-tale vibes, with a dark edge, it reminds me of the Witcher, in a good way.
Caught in the Web of Past and Present, a wondrous palace of illusion and trickery reminiscent of Palace of the Silver Princess or Rahasia, but more of a grown-up version. 37 rooms, 2 floors, multiple entrances galore, each with their own unique challenges. In terms of presenting a location that can be navigated in various ways, the force is strong with this one. Climable balconies, encounters in the surrounding areas, hidden switches that open up portcullises, secret passageways (marked on the floor with a closed eye, once you figure this out the map opens up somewhat), two different stairways down, survivors with a ticking clock (they only have so much food) hidden in different locations, and we are doing mighty fine on this one. Tight ass fucking map. It even has a hidden and difficult to reach treasury.
This one kind of does it all and employs an astounding number of advanced techniques but in an unobtrustive, balanced way, like its not even trying to show off. You get your evil adventuring party, your wandering monsters (some of which need not be hostile), your dirty scumbag encounters (wasp swarms spilling out of a dead bee), your mysterious encounters (the evil polymorphed Black Swan Xinemon is still trying to lead people to eat from the apples in a lake so they also get polymorphed), there’s the part where the Aranea (the monster you were set to kill) will start stalking you and doing hit and run attacks because of course there is. There’s subtle riddles to avoid magical protections, the answer to which is located elsewhere in the dungeon, there’s persistent environmental maladies like water that will give you a disease if you aren’t careful and, very curious, an Ogre and a Bear looking for her Gauntlets of Ogre power. What would an Ogre want with those? Curiouser and curiouser. I was thrilled to see Vargouilles and Rust Monsters on the Random Encounter tables, meaning that Asshole D&D is alive and well in the land of the Kurgan.
Good on using the monsters properly too. So many people default to just attacks or surprise. Here it’s suprise, or hides and then follows to the party to pick them off or be assholes about it, or just chills out unless you start wrecking shit etc. etc. If not everything is immediately hostile monsters actually become scarier. Unpredictability. It’s good. It breaks the tension. Try it.
Writing is fucking solid. Not overwrought, nor poetic, but good. It conveys the feel of decaying beauty. Leisure. Fountains and statues of frolicking nymphs. Rotting garments of silk. Bath houses, murals. A place of former beauty and tranquility, overrun by nature and evil. The illusions and plentiful magical ordeals (passwords, passage for the pure of heart, talking statues, pools of icy clear water that freeze if you reach for them etc.) imbue the whole with the otherworldly, the fey. Format is civilized but not decadent, overview, then descriptions for each subcomponent, bullet points for treasure.
This curved balcony has a roof, supported by slender columns decorated with carvings of vines and leaves. At the middle of the curve, in a projecting part of the balcony stands the humanoid shape of a statue. The whole balcony is woven in dense, dirty-white webs of spiders.
Webs: they are torn and weathered. The giant spiders living in the palace abandoned them a while ago.
Statue: it depicts an elven nobleman scouting the far horizons. In one of its hands it holds a rose of wrought iron, about a feet and a half long. The rose may be removed from the hand of the statue and used in location 27 (the sanctum).
Doors: tall, slender glass doors fit in wrought iron frames. In order to access them from the outside, the spider webs must be burned away or cut through (the latter takes at least 2 turns). The doors are bolted from the inside (may be unlocked with the proper thief skills), and protected by a magical trap.
Trap: there is a magical rune on each door, written with meteorite dust, so thin it is almost invisible. If the bolts of the doors are opened from the outside, the runes activate, and anyone standing in front of the door turns to rare meteorite stone (saving throw permitted). The runes can be disabled by simply smearing them.
There is the idea of the adventure and there is the execution of the adventure and often I feel the two are almost at war but here there is a harmonious marriage. Synchronicity. It is not clear whether the ideas have been applied to augment the dungeon or the dungeon has been made to create a framework for the ideas. The way a handful of encounters is customized but not everything because it is understood that such customization only has meaning against a normal backdrop. All is a seamless whole. A seamless whole WITH ASSHOLE DEATH TRAPS.
I think my favorite one is probably one where you make up illusionary doors that you can just close your eyes and walk through, and then put a trapdoor with electrified water immediately behind it. Very classy. The petrifying runes on the outer balcony door are also good. Or the mural that might drive you mad and into a permanent catatonic state. It doesn’t quite reach Melan levels of jerkface with his fucking 60 foot pit at the bottom of a winding stair (you absolute monster!) but it’s the good kind of pain, and its rare enough that its not too punishing.
I am not even going to cover the treasure because it is just good. Not overly ostentatious, or mega deep like Melonath Falls, but crisp, fresh, the thrill of occasional ornamentation side by side with the promise of sweet coin. The silver and the copper are contemptuously omitted by these stalwarts, but this is hardly a blemish. One trick I do not see often employed in Caught in the Web of Past and present is that of concealing treasure (although there are certainly plenty of other devices to prevent players from automatically winning all the treasure in the dungeon).
And then there is the part that is 100% extra credits but that players will remember for years to come where there is an illusion trap that propels the characters to a twisted past version of the palace where its still inhabited by elves only everything is really fucked up and while you are interacting with these weird freaks and being offered rotting food you are stalked by a horrible shadow monster that picks you off one by one and there are ways to escape it or even avoid it all together that don’t involve killing it.
The purpose in many ways of this contest was to illustrate that it is mastery of the framework of DnD, not the endless customization of its individual building blocks, that is the pathway to greatness. We are trained to crave immediate gratification, novelty, boom bang, new dopamine hits of art, look, high concept, weird stunt writing. Through this contest and entries like these, you have illustrated that this is mere mummery, a shadow on a cave wall, and that by understanding, true understanding, of the tools already at our disposal, a universe of infinite riches lies fallow, waiting to be conquered by those who are daring. This one does that.
You have done well, you all, you brave and daring, and thus it is with no extra delay that we shall move immediately to the Ceremony of the Eight Who Are Daring and the Crowning of the No Artpunk King. Many years have you all languished under the brightly coloured women’s jackboots of the Artpunkmen, forced to eat gruel and do your dungeons in spraypaint in dingy rat-infested alleys while the Artpunkmen capered in their ivory towers, brandished their fake gilded awards in your face and spitting and hissing while old ladies tried to cross the street. This ends today. Purging is at last at hand. The Day of Doom is here. All that is evil, their allies. Your parents, your teachers, those who would call themselves your judges, those who have lied and corrupted the OSR. They will all be cleansed. You my children, are the water, that will wash away all that has gone before. In your hand you hold my light, the gleam in the Eye of Set. The flame will burn away the darken-
Please play the above audioclip and keep reading for maximum effect.
Prince: What happen???
JB: Someone set up us the Bomb!!!
Settembrini: We get Signal.
Prince: Main Screen Turn On!!!
Prince: It’s You!!!
HISE: How are you Gentlemen!!
HISE: Artpunk is the ultimate evolution of the OSR.
HISE: You are on the way to extinction.
Trent: What you say?!!
HISE: THE CRYPTS OF ZUUL are the Final Module.
HISE: Module Zero. The No-No Artpunk.
HISE: You have no chance to survive make your time.
HISE: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Prince: Take off every OSR…
Prince: Module Zero is too strong. The OSR is no more!
Olle: Together we can fight him!
Hopeful: Nothing can beat the power of No-Artpunk!
Matthew: We must join together!!! One Final Everything Strike with Everything We Have!!!
Prince: Hmn…okay. Together we standing!
Jon: For the Great Justice!!! Victory AND DEATH!
Ben Gibson: DEATH!!!
Kent: GAY SEX!!!
Next up: THE TRUE FINAL ENTRY.