[Review] The Trail of Stone & Sorrow / The Gem Prison of Zardax (NGR); Kowolski Double Feature

A double feature of the true Avant-garde King himself, we are proud to feature the sublime Gem Prison of Zardax and throw in the small bonus adventure the Trail of Stone & Sorrow.

The Trail of Stone & Sorrow (2014)

Zzarchov Kowolski
Low Levels

The Trail of Stone and Sorrow - a deceptively simple OSR adventure | The  Trail of Stone and Sorrow

The bonus adventure first. This one hails from a time honored tradition of building an adventure around a monster, with a twist that makes it slightly more then it seems. It’s only 4 pages so at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It reminds me of a good Side-trek in Dungeon Magazine (if this exists).

In some mountainous region, a village boy stumbles upon the petrified body of a bear. Panic begins to spread, and the weird foreigner living on the other side of the mountain is to blame.
Enter the PCs, who are roped into it for no less then a barrel of ale. Good on you for giving a proper crapsack reward, and even better for having the weird foreigner offer 2000 gp for the body of whatever horror is actually behind the petrifications.

The adventure proper is essentially a series of clues in the wilderness, leading to the eventual culprit, a Catelopeblas. The twist is that this variant switches minds with everything it petrifies. You eventually encounter the Catelopeblas and maybe you will kill it? Adventure over.

Or is it? If we are being gracious, it is not quite that simple. Over the course of the adventure the PCs discover a series of odd clues that, if pieced together will reveal the fact that the Catelopeblas switches minds with whatever it petrifies first. As such the PCs, if careful, might be able to piece together that whatever it is they are hunting now has the mind of its last victim, the villager Polde Kosovel, whose wife and kids are still alive. This is also a good explanation for why it will not use its petrifying gaze at first opportunity.

A seemingly simple monster hunt gains a bit of complexity, which is ingenious. I think I would have enjoyed a paragraph devoted to a resolution of the adventure where the PCs try to rescue Kosovel, or at least try to not kill him. The nearby foreign wizard is only 4th level so there is no chance of obtaining a Stone to Flesh spell anywhere.

As written, it’s simple, but the twist renders it complex enough to generate some long term play, elevating it beyond your average Side-treck, and it’s PWYW, so why not? Good for a single session of low level fun, but nothing spectacular.


The Gem Prison of Zardax (2015)

Zzarchov Kowolski
Lvl 4 – 6

The Gem Prison of Zardax - Zzarchov Kowolski | DriveThruRPG.com

This is the real deal. The extraplanar prison dimension inside an emrald, built by the ancients and populated with their criminals and living weapons, re-decorated by the villainous Zardax the Wizard and used for petty villainy. A module that invokes the satirical tag ‘ What Gary would have wanted,’
and reclaims it so its meaning is to be taken unironically. What is in essence a fun-house dungeon, pure challenge, is executed with originality, ambition and flair. The characters somehow obtain the gem and get trapped inside.

Funhouse dungeons, especially puzzle dungeons, are a tricksy beast. The lack of any sort of naturalistic environment means that the author will have to slyly write around the obvious artificality of the dungeon.
Absurdity seems a common recourse, wacky 30s cartoon era aesthethics in the case of Card Dungeon, surrealist prog-rock psychedilicism in the case of this particular gem, complete with surreal acid-trip floating eyeballs and different colored walls.

The dungeon proper reminds me of the movie Cube, 20 rooms, with random connections (i.e. you roll for it), the rooms stay connected as long as party members are present in both rooms, if a room is abandoned, the exit to the previous room now leads to another randomly connected chamber.
There is one exit, one key somewhere, and its eerily forcefield doors are marked with cryptic IQ-test symbols. The decision to implement this pattern, which gives hints as to the contents of the room the PCs are inhabiting, without revealing the riddle to the GM, is a curious one that may or may not work.
The ultimate point is that the PCs will either learn to master the ‘rules’ that govern this strange environment or they will eventually get worn down by the randomly encountered inhabitants that remain within the Gem prison.

The puzzles proper are interesting, not so much riddles with a binary pass/fail condition but more open-ended features. The exit is guarded by 8 owl-headed guardians with silver rapiers, who will consent to let the PCs pass if they can eat one of them alive. Two features, the Hub and the Lock, can, if figured out, greatly reduce the time players will need to backtrack to prior rooms. The rooms are stark, almost devoid of detail, everything that is included takes on a sort of hyper-significance. Teleporters to random rooms are common. Few connections are permanent and always lead to the same rooms. The actual method of exit is hidden and guarded. How easy would it be to escape from this place? Something tells me it is doable, the number of rooms is hinted at it one possible room, and determining that a key is required for the last lock is not difficult.

The comparison to Cube is apt. There are rooms that are filled with deadly peril. A room wreathed in flame. A triangular room without gravity. Rooms containing hideous monstrosities (giant silver wasps, vast ocular terrors), or crusher traps that move on a sequence. The sequence thing could have been explained better, but ultimately makes sense. 7 crushing walls move on several segments (e.g. every 2 segments, every 3, every 5 etc.). You move one crusher area per segment, and thus in order to move through the whole sequence you must figure out the rhythm. I think notes on whether or not you can deduct the rythm of all 7 crushers from the first crusher alone should have been adressed, but otherwise this is a cool trap. Levers and buttons abound that cause changes elsewhere in this surreal labyrinth of death.

This is an instance when going for all unique magic items and monsters WORKS. The inhabitants of the place are meant to hail from a distant epoch. Cat-headed elven wardens, strange mad Ice-men, Silver wasps, skeletons dressed in cloaks of dried leaves. Living weapons and alien terrors from a bygone age.
Supplemented with strange treasures, glas coins, children’s teeth, enchanted glass eyes, ethereal swords, ancient volumes filled with random spells. The treasure is a little on the light side for characters of level 4-6 but nothing gamebreaking, and one suspects the deficiency is more then made up by the abundance of magical items. The NGR to OSR conversion is a little smoother then the previous edition, although one wonders how much the ability to craft spells from templates in NGR actually alters the gameplay. There is a strange subtlety to some of the encounters, the decision to place the Dimensional Guardian Eye behind a corner of the room, or to put the formidable necromancer (composed of 5 wraiths sharing one pool of hit points) in a room with a random teleporter in the centre, introduces some complexity to what could have been a simple beatdown.

The meaning of the IQ test like pattern recognition code continues to elude, I imagine actually playing through it might sharpen the senses enough to wrest answers from its cryptic configuration.
The minimalist presentation, NGR spell templates and pervasive scrapprincess scribbles kind of bloat this one up to a girthy 48 pages but in comparison with most Puzzle dungeons, something fairly rare to begin with, Gem Prison of Zardex holds up rather well. I think the biggest pitfall to avoid is to present it as a series of binary problems, the failed resolution of any of which will lock the party in a fail state.

Instead there is really only one puzzle that need be resolved in order for the characters to properly exit. The bulk of the other obstacles or puzzles will either A) generate extra treasure, or B) allow characters to exercise greater control over the rooms that they travel towards. Also, very properly, this dungeon is quite hazardous, and one suspects that it has claimed its share of adventurers over the years. Lots of meat, little gristle, and a suprising amount of depth, which is rare enough in these sorts of ventures.

Definetely worth checking out.

**** for a suprisingly tight puzzle dungeon, good for several sessions. The attention that is paid to actually using the module by, say, rolling d20s in advance indicates either playtesting or a focus on how the module will actually be played, to which I say hell yes!

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