The Destruction Contraption (2017)
Unbalanced Dice Games
Low Levels (2-4 should be about right, lots of AC < 5)
Back in the days of Castle Greyhawk and the famous lake Geneva Campaign, there were tales of a level designed by Rob Kuntz that was supposed to have been composed of machinery, with escalators, treadmills, industrial presses, slot machines etc. etc. Like many a project announced by Kuntz, it did not see the light of day, but today we at least have a spiritual successor, and made by the inimitable master of Unbalanced Dice Games.
I love the idea that there is craftsmanship and skill and knowledge behind D&D that can be learned and transmitted but with a practice also comes convention and wonder and novelty are almost the antithesis of invention. As convention mounts D&D becomes stale and self-referential. It is the Unbalanced Dice Games of the world, that must shake us loose from our ossified perches, and behold the Raw Engine of Creation in its purest, most undiluted form.
With that out of the way, the adventure suffers from the same problems all Unbalanced Dice Games adventures suffer from. Stream of consciousness writing, references are by title (if one is lucky) and not by index nr. so unless you have absorbed the entire work in alphabetical order or you flip between an encounter and the index it is easy to lose track of some encounters, particularly in this one where the dungeon proper has a suprising amount of interconnectivity.
Where do we begin? This adventure is good. Demented but good. The prophetically named village of Massakra has been obliterated, wiped from the map, its inhabitants leaving only ashen smudges. The culprit is a mad artificer Mabla dressed in an impenetrable suit of tinfoil armor, whose sinister workshop in a wierdo forest is churning out all manner of bizarre contraptions. The PCs are ambiguously tasked by the local authorities to hunt down the culprit and bring him to justice, dead or (more profitably) alive. He will obviously escape at least once if you do so.
This adventure abides by no sensible rules of design laid out by man but seems carved from raw, primordial creativity. Good luck finding a tone. Tracks lead you from the village to a house in a tree with square leaves, inhabited by a hump-backed, artificial man who identifies as Mabla’s son. The first section is pure discovery, whimsy, a 2 clues in a 10ish room tree house leading directly to the inventors workshop. You get this:
5 Bed The room is empty. There is a door knob on one of the walls but no door. If turned a bed mattress will fall from the ceiling. It just materializes and falls. If the door knob is turned when the mattress is here it dumps anyone on it and flies up to the ceiling is gone. The door knob (un)summoning can be repeated forever
It is all like this. This is what the Elven House tried to do and failed. A place that you visit whose contents provoke wonder without having any monetary value. Clues hinting at the true events. And a teleporter should the PCs wish to skip the possibly arduous overland journey!
Overland travel encounters are surprisingly varied. If the PCs don’t find the map or get teleported there there is an overland hex-map, complete with railroad tracks to the River. You get encounters like this:
3. A big metal claw with helicopter blades flies above the party. It has something in its claw. It descends and drops it on the ground. The thing is a large barracuda with some device attached to its bottom. The device is a 5′ long 3′ wide 1′ high. The box that is covered in fish scales. This must be why the fish floats. The barracuda will attack the party and wants to eat them. The claw flies away after it drops the fish. The party will be unable to attack the claw. Flying pursuit is in vain, it descends into the trees and is impossible to find. The barracuda goes up in flames 10 when killed but the device remains. They will be unable to use the device attached to it. In fact it will seem to do the opposite if picked up. Characters that touch it will be unable to move until they let it go. (AL N, MV Float 90′(30′), AC 6, HD 3+3, AT 1, DG 1d8, SV F2 , MR 10, XP 65) HP: 13
But you also get fleeing spy trees, living wooden men resembling the villagers that follow the party around, trails of prior ruined villages, tracks leading back to the house or to the Workshop, Oblurn the Artificer’s son offering the Party 200 GP if they flee the area, or a spinning disk that will cause everyone to lose their bearings. It makes a demented sort of sense. The encounters proper are, again, surprisingly because you assume it is shit from every little detail, well detailed. It’s little things like getting some warning before you see a flying claw with a spear and a note that you can take cover behind a tree, or a stampede of wooden statues rampages through the forest etc. Most of the encounters here and inside are demented, but you often get a hint at the similarly bizarre origins of the disaster and the intelligence behind it. It’s like the entire module was written by someone with only threadbare knowledge of architecture, technology, magic and just basic common sense, but who then proceeds to make up elaborate constructions using fantastical logic. The artificery has no windows or doors and its first floor is made up out of bricks of stone and its next floor is made up out of steel bricks. A single railroad of green wood and green steel enters via the ceiling?!? You see this sort of writing in novice level adventures but there its used to paper over something the author doesn’t really understand and doesn’t feel like learning about whereas here it is elaborate, a workshop composed of assumption upon assumption, making a demented and internal sort of sense. A verisimilitude if I ever saw one. This is also where the suspicions mount that Mr. Unbalanced Dice Games, whoever he is, is some sort of veteran. It is as though someone has made a D&D without ANY presuppositions of what is supposed to be in the game, but kept the essential structure of an adventure. There is too much precision for a complete stranger.
Let me give you an example. The entire building is lit by thousands of little glowing light bulb spiders, that are harmless. Okay, fuck you, you think. So no torches? Bullshit! But then, you find out there is a random encounter that causes all the Spiders to malfunction, plunging the entire factory in darkness. Suddenly you are fucked, stuck having to make a light with your tinderbox in the darkness while the GM rolls a random encounter. Or how it has a crushing floor/ceiling, but then the adventure puts a shining spot in a particular area of the lowered floor, hinting at treasure? It also uses the Gygaxian mode of subversive repetition, two seemingly similar encounters or elements that are actually different. You build up an expectation, and then you fuck people with that expectation.
The map is…pretty good. There are hints at symmetry on the first level, concentric, interlocking squares, with tasteful use of empty space. You will find plentiful rooms containing ‘natural’ hazards like Pressing floors, Vibrating floors, or haywire ‘Destruction Contraptions’, or sealed caskets containing all manner of bizarre antagonists. The two levels, as far as I can tell, can be entered in different ways. There is a demented logic to some of the obstacles, which are placed in the large circuit of the outer square so they present a considerable obstacle if they are not dared. There is disorientation too, in the form of both fixed and random doors that can transport the party around the area. All of it runs on rube-goldberg logic, pre-scientific science. There is a device that can make any object twice as large. The Thing resizer! A barrel full of magnetic paint! What could have been boring, heavy machinery, is injected with fantastical and eerie qualities, making them mysterious and deadly, and most importantly, INTERACTIVE. YES. Yes you can figure out that the pile of ‘Soul Stones’ are used to keep the Inhabitants of Massaka trapped in the factory in order to (presumably) make artificial humans, and yes! You can take them outside and eliminate them that way. Ride a partially dismantled Destruction Contraption. Obtain a floating box with life support capacity. Or get obliterated by one of many pieces of deadly heavy machinery.
All of this crazy shit is augmented by the random encounters, which for some insane reason must be checked every d3 turns and you roll a d10 and a d6 to get a number between 1 and 30?!? It doesn’t matter. All the monsters are unique. Artificial men. Artificial giant men that put you to sleep if touched. Screaming men that cause deafness. Weird globes of glue that hit you and then transport you to some random section of the maze and leave you there. All but invulnerable ‘Brick-Inspectors’ that attempt to extort a tithe for destruction of machinery and summon Giants. Something that looks like a giant egg yolk that eats metal. It’s all there, its fucking insane, it all does something different besides the obligatory ‘it attacks.’
The titular Destruction Contraption itself comes in many shapes and is perhaps emblematic of the module as a whole. A metal cube, with half-globes covering each face, and metal tentacles ending in rectangular cubes. If it is fully charged, it can obliterate anything within a quarter mile radius, no saving throw, but it needs 1000 hp worth of electricity damage for that (yes that is relevant in the adventure!). The titular Mambla (who is but one of several NPCs, there is even a possible betrayal by his ‘son’) will attempt to flee and arm himself with one. There are floating beds on energy balls? This is nuts. A glorious nuts that works.
Even the interaction bullshit works. What did I talk about in Tsjocanth, that you need a good balance of encounters; hostile, benevolent, seemingly hostile, ambiguous etc. etc. This does that. You can find friendly artificial men who might? Enhance your weapon, or you might inadvertently destroy the man who is repairing all the Sons of Malba, instead of figuring out that he can raise someone from the dead. What of the other NPCs? The Sinister Krackjerk! The mysterious Observer! Or do I go into (it’s haphazardly mentioned but fucc it!) how Malba will attempt to bargain for his life with the promise of invincible tin foil suits.
Treasure is…you know it. All unique. Very light on the gold piece value and the drop rate, but a lucky party or a party willing to take risks can probably walk away with a considerable amount of gold, particularly if they fight the brick inspectors. The module is also deadly as hell but in a jovial way, like a fun uncle, where you are killed if you interact with objects in the wrong way. Rusted metal rot grubs, crushing walls, electricity, but no bullshit traps. That’s another thing, no traps at all, no locked doors to pick, it is like it was conceived without any pre-existing notions of what should be in an adventure. Just go.
This is pretty darn good. Fantasy adventurers explore a bizarre factory. Expect bizarre machinery, disorientation, death from strange corners, strange, off-beat encounters. There is interaction, there is a balance between risk and reward, there is the ambiguity that invites exploration. There are the complications, the inventor getting away so you have to get him again, the strange machinery. The art is deliberately bad and the stream of consciousness style is a little clunky but the bones of a good adventure are here. If everything would be like this I would probably lose my mind but whoah, well done.
7 thoughts on “[Review] The Destruction Contraption (LL); Machine Level”
Recently, I decried the fact that I must be a stupid, stupid human being because a dude who calls himself “Sly Flourish” was able to raise more than $288,000 via kickstarter for a 5E help book called “The Lazy DM’s Companion” by writing books that are “generally helpful without being condescending.”
Now, I read this and I am saddened by my utter lack of creativity.
Some people have natural brilliance. My buddy, Steve-O, is incredibly creative in a mad weirdo kind of way, especially when it comes to creative writing…he simply comes up with ideas that astound and amaze and, while simple in execution (i.e they are sensible) they somehow manage to sidestep cliche. On the other hand, he is undisciplined, prone to flaws of spelling and grammar, and has been unable to deliver an actual, completed short story or novel despite years of exploring the possibility.
I suppose there are Mozarts and there are Salieris in this world and I must resign myself to the latter, mediocre class.
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Envy is the most bitter of sins because we don’t receive even the false comfort of momentary satisfaction, yet we continue to indulge in it. You are knowledgeable about D&D in a manner that would have seen you face social stigma in a more civilized age. You are passionate, even opinionated. You are also diligent, you can put out material at a pace that I would not be able to match, and that’s with Aaron as my editor/therapist. These are your assets. You have a family, passions that do not involve D&D, you are hale, you are not poor.
You can do something good with that. If yours is not the most creative work, what of it? Gygax was not the most creative. You can do research, you can channel your energies to produce craftsmanship. Team up with your friend or some other person. You don’t do it for money, so why compare yourself with all these others? It is oneself that must be beaten, eternally.
Now pick up that sword. We have a crusade to fight.
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You are very kind. Perhaps too kind. But thank you.
I am actually in the process of swinging my blade, just “off-camera” at the moment. Perhaps something interesting will come of it…certainly something opinionated, I’m sure.
When I was a player (starting back in the late 70’s), my most excellent DM could (and did) produce endless creative content like this. There were his more serious efforts, but even those frequently veered into the bizarre. He had a massive megadungeon name MORDOR that was pure creative insanity like this, but also totally playable. He (as a high-school student) used to run his therapist through it.
It was a blast, but if you had any love for your character you stayed far, far away—too easy to get transformed (or cursed) into something wondrous but unrecognizable.
I expect his therapist got an article or a book out of that: how my client cursed, poisoned, beheaded and then turned me to stone. He had monster issues. (Please excuse possible bad taste.)
Not in bad taste. I always thought “Lucky therapist—get’s paid to play D&D!” My DM-pal would have laughed too. His family had money to waste.