No Artpunk Entry #0: The Crypts of Zuul

Kunst op Zondag | Science Fiction - Sargasso
Li I, H.R. Giger

The Crypts of Zuul
HISE
19 pages
AD&D (?)
Lvl ??? (est. 4-6)

Near deadline’s end, I was sent a cryptic message.

“5 days ago I got in a heated argument over sandboxes and railroads.

This is what came out of that.


{Link}

Cheers

HISE”

Not understanding this was meant to be a contest entry, by the time I had requested and was granted access to the link I had already announced the contestants. After perusing it, I opted for a last minute dramatic reveal. Crypts of Zuul has immense potential, but it is clearly an unfinished work. It may or may not violate many of the strictures I have laid out. It is, however, far too interesting not to review.

The power of Crypts of Zuul is in the eerie beauty of its encounters, each seemingly sprung straight from the ID, intricate and beautiful, yet part of some greater design that we do not fathom. The different room contents do not make sense, and are not connected beyond the odd Key A opening Door B. With these tantalizing words HISE heralds in this labyrinth of deadly strangeness.

The dry seabed of a receding ocean. The cities have followed the lowering waters. The NEW TOWN is close to the sea level. The OLD CITY is an elevation up. The ANCIENT METROPOLIS is on a high elevation, now just a long forgotten sandstorm torn edifice perched on a high cliff. The LAST SEA is the last great water source, however it is highly toxic due to slow concentration of salts and SPICE created as a waste bi-product of the LITTLE MAKERS.

These are the labyrinthine passages beneath the RUINED TEMPLE in the NECROPOLIS OF SUUL. The NECROPOLIS sits at the edge of the DEAD SEA BASIN, perched on a cliff overlooking a vast terraced landscape. This was the last great city built along the ancient ocean. As the water receded the settlements followed. SUUL was abandoned. The underworks remain.


Only cryptic hints as to the origins and purpose of the place. Good. You need that. A blank slate with tantalizing hints that the mind will slowly combine into a coherent whole. Impressionist story telling. Perhaps not describing the appearance of the place could be used to one’s advantage, but this might be unworkable. Go for something odd. Featureless white marble tunnels or something.


The map drew my eye. It is not fully operational, and has no scale yet. I suspect the key for the map was lost, but I assume D stands for Door, D* would be a stuck door, S is a secret door and A is a locked door? The meaning of the Kanji in the southeast corner eludes. That being said, very ambitious, two tiers, balconies, walkways, multiple entrances to the surface and down (maybe even to different levels). The proper size for a megadungeon. As written it is also probably too empty, although having a very desolate labyrinth might actually work to its strengths. Maybe add 10 more encounters?

The balcony part is intriguing in concept but the verticality is not used that well. It adds to the disorientation but I would have liked to see it used more often. Maybe introduce some sort of patrolling monster that is very deadly but only Knee-High? Despite the multiple layers, it is not always clear where the higher levels are, and where the two overlap. Consider adding a clarifying sentence in the rooms where the overlap takes place?    

Random Encounter table is provided, thank gygax, and monster selection is the good kind of strange. Phase Spiders, AL Miraj, fire beetles, Dark creepers, Rust monsters, Disenchanter, some Satyr-like dark souls merchant that is actually a Denizen of Leng. A Carbuncle! The Nonafel. The strangest of the monster manual entries have been harvested and their powers are combined. A whiff of Dune is sprinkled on top. A labyrinth of forgotten purpose inhabited by cryptids and creatures of darkness.

The writing has power behind it.

11. LIBRARY DOOR The large double-door to this room seems to be barred from the inside. Above the portal is scrawled the words:

Silence Speaks”.
Set in the door is a brass knocker shaped something like a chicken head with a ring in between its beak.
● The door will open if the knocker is raised, then lowered without making a sound.
● If the knocker is used with force, the eyes of the chicken flash, and all those within line of site of the door must make a save vs Petrification.


Each is a unique gemstone, existing in a void and having almost no relation to its brothers. Holographic room exhibits (yes I caught the MoBM/Frank Frazetta/Wilderlands shoutout). The corpse of a brilliant musician locked in Astral travel. A place where anything can and does happen. As a tip for the useability, if a key opens some door in another room, it helps to put a reference to that room in the key entry and vice versa. Monsters negotiate or are at least talkative, objects are cryptic but hide power, often in the forms of spells, or terrible danger that must be unlocked. Somehow there is indeed a good balance between dangerous encounters, interaction, the odd trap (a delayed blast fireball ballista!).   

At the same time sometimes it seems obtuse. Why put a petrification trap on the library when visiting the library does not seem to give an immediate benefit. Can its countless forbidden tomes be utilized elsewhere in the dungeon?

At times monsters will be described as talkative but their goals are unclear.

21. HAY STACK A large 15 ft tall pile of finely cured hay crowds the center of this room. A CATOBLEPAS chews thoughtfully.
 ● If the beast is approached peacefully and treated with respect, it may engage the PCs in conversation. It is quite knowledgeable. “If the world was created from Ymir’s body, then what does that make stone?”
● Close, careful inspection among the haystack will reveal 3 GOLDEN NEEDLES and 1 YGG PINE NEEDLE among the dry grass.
● A prick from a GOLDEN NEEDLE will cause stone to soften, as per TRANSMUTE STONE TO FLESH


Cryptic is good but more elaboration is required in terms of how the PCs are going to interact with it. If it is wise, does it know any secrets within the labyrinth proper? This is something you could work with, in a place with so much mystery, any hint or bit of knowledge is of immense value.

There are references to ID and MANA, that are not explained. Tantalizing hints of a greater design.  
The map and the encounters are not connected. That is to say, they exist in the same place but there is almost no synergy between the two. This is a mistake. A fantastic map like should have chokepoints, areas that the PCs might want to move around, shortcuts etc. One good decision, a false wall that functions like a teleporter into a wholly different area of the map. That is fantastic. Consider secret rooms with hints to their location placed elsewhere in the dungeon.

There is power in the strangeness but there is no reason that strangeness cannot be refined and strengthened by good practice. Concealing more of your treasure or giving a gold piece value to some of the treasures would not inflict harm upon it, though using a standard treasure distribution format would in all fairness ruin the effect. I applaud the use of the MM entries because in an environment like this convention and the familiar can indeed function as a hindrance not a help so the way they were used was perfect.

There are terrifying references to the Morgue Moth, the adult version of the Carrion Crawler that has taken host in a human body and bursts out, having stolen the memory of its host and now thinking itself the wizard it sprung from but it has, unfortunately, no stats. If there is any source of inspiration that can do justice to such a thing I expect it to be somewhere between an Alzebo and that Moth thing from Perdido Street Station. One hopes that in the final version the thing will stalk the players through the tunnels, with nightmarish patience.

Don’t do any faction play here, I think it might ruin it? Faction play assumes intelligible goals and the possibility of (at least) temporary alliance. There are (potentially) friendly NPCs in the dungeon, which is good, but no big bands of humanoids. Probably the best one is a Disenchanter that is willing to team up with the party in exchange for part of the treasure, but who will casually extort the players out of a Magic Compass they might potentially find. Big groups of humanoids here would probably make it feel too crowded.

Treasure…

The parasitic flower growing off the TREE is a semi-petrified CRIMSON LOTUS. It requires ID to bloom. This is functionally a minor artifact, the CRIMSON LOTUS WAND. It has 1d20 charges. It can generate a BURNING HANDS for 1 charge, and a FIREBALL for 3. It requires a separate command word for each effect. These once common words are now obscure. As charges are spent, the bloom retracts to a bulb. If all the charges are spent, the petals fall off and shatter, and the stem turns to dust.

Everything is customized the shit out of and to good effect. No way in hell there will be anything level appropriate.

Obviously adding the odd notation on damage or saving throws sort of does away from the power of the thing but it is necessary for gameplay.

It was done in 5 days. The imagination exults at its final form. Make this a thing.

Contest Winners on Sunday.


20 thoughts on “No Artpunk Entry #0: The Crypts of Zuul

  1. try #0: The Crypts of Zuul:

    Well, here we are at the end. At the start of the reviews, I burned with FOMO that I hadn’t gotten my own entry in. Now I’m glad–it would have been a turd in the punchbowl. The ingenuity and craft on display here has been astonishing, a level up to which I could not live.

    But I don’t blame myself. The jolly thirtysomethings of MY AREA have precisely zero interest in anything other than 5e. I would know, I’ve run myself ragged trying to get my group to play literally anything else. (Eventually I gave up; next month I’ll start running the new WotC hardback, a magical renn faire illusionist railroad in which I’m scavenging for fun. I get to do silly accents, which is cool I guess.)

    Anyway, my point is: how can I expect to write adventures like these when I can’t even get a friggin’ old-school game going? The genius on display in this contest was forged in the fires of ACTUAL PLAY EXPERIENCE. Lord, what I would give for a few hardy souls to rock some B/X with.

    I sit alone and read STONEHELL and HELVÉCZIA and heave a great sigh. Then I get back to taking notes from my WotC hardback.

    Like

    1. Do you have a regular group of players, even if it’s 5E? This’ll work if you have players that know you as good/fun DM in a system they’re comfortable with.

      One session when you’re at a break point in your main campaign, just tell your players, “Hey guy, this session we’re talking a quick break for shits and giggles and we’re going to run this cool 80s D&D adventure I read that’s awesome.” Give them pre-mades (and have a handful of pre-mades ready for retainers/replacing dead PCs) so they don’t have do know shit about rules. Stress to them not to worry about rules, and focus solely on interacting with the game with a character mindset, not a mechanical mindset, and then proceed to run a fun-ass BX adventure for them. Chances are, they’ll have a blast. Then go back to your 5E campaign like normal. Maybe a couple of times before the 5E game’s done, run one or two more one shots for special sessions. The players that find they love it will then, at the end of the 5E campaign, be fully open if you suggest doing a full campaign in classic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is really quite good advice, thank you! I do have a good regular group; I like them all very much, they just only ever want to play 5e. I’m gonna give this a go–it should genuinely help with my DM burnout as well.

        And thank you so much for the adventure offer! Look for an email momentarily.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Fucking pressed F to pay respects.

      Getting people to try new things can be tricky, maybe you can at least offer them a gateway drug? There’s a guy who does the so-called Dungeon Age Adventures for 5e (something Lewis, I reviewed one or two on my blog). While I think they are not quite oldschool level good, they are open-ended, they have a great balance between interaction/exploration and combat and they are, very importantly, not boring. As soon as you wean them off expecting DnD to be thespian-wank-animu-superhero bullshit, there is always hope. Or try something like Mines, Claws & Princesses by Oswald.

      The opposition has been mighty this contest, but be not dismayed. For from these I will attempt to condense the knowledge and ingenuity, that the next generation of contests may come forearmed, and be forced to invent even further.

      Like

      1. That’s a great idea, too, running them through a 5E adventure that is written in an old school way. Then they can get a feel for old school play but in a system they’re mechanically comfortable with. Actually, Nat20, shoot me an email to matt at mithgarthr dot com with the email address you use on DriveThruRPG, and I’ll send you a copy of the 5E conversion of my OSR module The Mines of Valdhum (Bryce liked it, so it must be good lol https://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?p=3794).

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      2. I did sneak the 5e conversions of White Plume Mountain, Hidden Shrine of Tamoa-chan, and the first level of The Final Enemy into other campaigns. White Plume was a fucking blast; they popped the bubble and flooded a bunch of the dungeon without ever finding Blackrazor. Hidden Shrine was kind of meh, it didn’t really work outside a tournament setting maybe?

        I think part of the challenge is that with 5e you’re working against the system. Like you can run old dungeons, but combat is slow and involved, PCs are resilient, the character sheet holds answers, etc. etc. so the players don’t really need to shift their mindset.

        I will try to hook them with more gateway adventures, though. It’s a process.

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    3. Sometime in the summer of 2010 I decided I wanted to get back into playing D&D, specifically B/X, specifically with adults, specifically in person (as opposed to with random folks on-line).

      The gaming scene 11 years ago was VERY different from now. 5E was not even a twinkle in WotC’s eye (they were still pushing 4E), Pathfinder had already snagged marketshare, and while Labyrinth Lord, Osric, and S&W were a “thing” they didn’t have nearly the same traction. No OSE, no DCC, “grindhouse” LotfP hadn’t even been published (Raggi was more known for adventures than his core system). The OSR was a few hundred of people floating around the internet, and actual “old school” gamer groups were an insular, secluded bunch only found on forums and blogs…I’d show up at Seattle’s biggest gaming con with my B/X books and find ZERO interest in ANY type of “old school” play.

      [by contrast, in August of 2019 there were no less than half a dozen B/X games alone, plus plenty of DCC, LotFP, S&W, and 5E playing Goodman versions of classic TSR. Heck, I even sat in on a Holmes Basic game]

      So I roped my brother into playing with me at the local bar on a Thursday night. And we had fun. And I talked about it (and blogged about it). And after a couple weeks my buddy, who hadn’t gamed since high school, wanted to try and sat down with us. And a week or two later, a guy walked up to as at our table and asked if he could join. And then he brought a couple friends from his work place.

      And then they brought others. And some folks who’d never played D&D before heard about the Thursday night games and started showing up to see what it was all about. At my height, I think the “regular” group was about a dozen plus, though I never had more than nine at the table. Some splintered off and formed their own “Thursday night group” …mainly because I started writing and playtesting my own games…but others joined. If I had continued to run B/X I would have eventually had to start turning people away (the games were getting too big); if I had been willing to run AD&D at the time, the speed at which the table increased in size would only have accelerated (several folks dropped by asking if I’d be willing to run something other than “basic;” I declined).

      My running games at the bar only ended when I moved to Paraguay for three years (circa 2015).

      Start running your game. Aside from the ongoing pandemic, the main barrier to play is our own inhibitions about running. There are a LOT more resources (on-line) in 2021 for folks wanting to run older edition games. No one should have to settle for 5E play.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the inspirational tale! Certainly the pandemic has made everything much harder. My hope was to do something similar to your story–start a pickup game somewhere public (game store, school game night) and let people find me. Of course that’s on the back burner at least until my son can get vaccinated. (I also desperately want to attend GaryCon or NTRPG.)

        I don’t love playing online, but does anyone know of resources for finding online OSR games?

        Like

    4. You’re the DM.

      Just run them through some OSR style dungeons. They don’t have to know where they came from. I never tell my players if the dungeon they are in is homebrew or a published product so they cannot metagame or know what to expect.

      Skip the Ren-Faire bullshit and just run them through Zzarchov’s ‘Pale Lady’. You can even pretend that this is the official DnD feywild crap. They won’t know until it is too late.

      Personally, I’d just tell them:
      ‘I’m the DM, and I’m putting in the majority of the work. It is more fun, and less effort, for me to use an OSR system. You will learn the ins and outs within a single play session, and you will be doing most of the same shit you do in DnD, just with different math underpinning the entire thing.”

      Anyone who refuses is probably a piece of shit that isn’t worth playing with. They are the kind of player that is going to make your campaign shitty no matter what system it’s in.

      Or, you can simply OSR-ify 5e without telling them. Anyone who wets their pants at the changes can be directed to the official DMG which has variants for more lethal combat, slower grittier healing, etc. You can ban all the half-turtle half-cat half-angel people by simply declaring they don’t exist in this continent/world or were wiped out, or maybe you’re trying to discover what happened to them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, I’m stealing the hell out of that pissed off chicken; what a clever door trap! I love simple riddles like this, so do my players.

    Oh, and after Odin and his brothers killed the foul jötunn, they used his bones to make the mountains/stones. 😉

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  3. Does this entry really fit “no Art-Punk?” It feels far more concerned with style than (D&D) substance or usability. There are imaginative Art-Punk products, too, right?

    Regarding issues with verticality: color coding might make it easier to distinguish levels on the map; Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits did this well (and Zuul’s diagonal layout is reminiscent of Q1, despite its different theme, etc.).

    Not sure why this didn’t receive the #19 designation. 19 is an auspicious number in Chaldean numerology.

    Like

    1. @re color coding
      He actually did that on another map that I did not show because it was not keyed. Perhaps if all 3 maps were combined.

      Man I go to all the trouble to explain my position on this piece in an elaborate Zero Wing metaphor and I go out of my way to distinguish it and I still get bombarded with questions. Who are the contest winners? Is this No Artpunk? Does ‘Go Away’ count as consent? etc. etc. etc. Such is my lot. Zarathusra has to come down from his mountain again to bring Fire to the apes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hah, and I thought it was crystal clear myself. No-No Artpunk, everything clear.

    @Author: gold needle, this is from the FF-world, right? I always wondered what the JRPG reason or allusion is.

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  5. I like the map. It reminds me of the Q1 “needlepoint” map and also of the maps of the Blackmoor Castle dungeons in First Fantasy Campaign. It’s big enough to feel like an actual labyrinth, someplace people could get lost in, which is rare in dungeons designed after ~1976. That said, it’s fundamental artpunkiness is revealed if you turn it 45 degrees because then you see that everything is straight lines and squares and rectangles and all of the turns are 90 degrees and it would line up perfectly with a graph-paper grid. It’s only tilting it 45 degrees that makes it look arty and seem more complex than it actually is (while also making it harder to use in play, especially if the players are trying to draw their own map (though I suppose in Artpunkland that’s something that would never happen)).

    Like

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