2022 5-star rating spring-cleanup

Standards change with greater understanding and a broader frame of reference. It’s unfeasable to maintain a constant up-to-date library of reviews of everything I have ever read but there is one area that should require some upkeep, which is the vaunted ***** rating, the very best of the material I have come across. Without further adue, let us begin the ceremony.

Of the works of Gary Gygax:
AD&D 1e is swiftly becoming my new benchmark for superlative excellence. The tactical complexity, maturity of the scenarios, subtlety, the delicious versimilitude, it all adds together beautifully. Some problems occur when I compare say, B2 with my later rating of D2 or S4, both of which are far more complex, atmospheric, and flavorful. But these disparities, while important, should probably merit upgrades, not downgrades. As it stands my current crop of Gygax modules that I consider sublime stand at

S1, G1, G3, D3, T1, B2, WG4 & WG5.

These are, by and large, fantastic modules that are endlessly fascinating to dwell upon, with perhaps only WG5 looking slightly dubious when compared to material like S4, which I have rated only 4 stars. Despite some fantastic set-pieces and intricate subtleties, I don’t think it’s quite as strong as the rest of this iron-clad line-up, so I feel no compunctions busting WG5 down to 4 stars.

Role Aids:
Mayfair games has produced only a single work I considered worthy of the 5 star rating, the vaunted Swordthrust. Again we perform the Tjoconth test, and this time we have a defensible position. Consider the powder-keg town waiting to break into a full-out assassin/wizard war, the evil shitbag wizards, the intricate map composed of the two halves of a giant ice-titans brain and the possibility of ending the module by causing the mile high frozen terror to rise from the ice, having finally resolved its contemplation of the question of Good and Evil (hope you resolved it in the favor of good!). 5 Stars ye are, and 5 ye shall remain!

White Dwarf:
The old White Dwarf magazine had some great entries, with the Halls of Tizun Thane meriting a 5 star rating (again, a fantastic scenario, complex and intricate, evoking shades of R.E. Howard with a whiff of Book of the New Sun). The only other scenario that comes to mind is Lichway, which might be a more fitting candidate for the 5-star position in the ultra-lightweight category, and it is hard to imagine a stronger entry of only 4 pages. The gold standard. Arise, Lichway. Into the demesne of the most holy!

B-series (B/X)

I started off my oldschool binge on the B-series and found many things to my liking. I’ve run B2 twice (I’ll run it again this sunday), B1 4 times (it is still the best starter module for both GM and Players new to the game) and B6 and B10. I am perfectly content with my ratings of B2 and B10, as they are both compelling works, worthy of play and replay. B5, however, is merely excellent, extremely strong vanilla DnD, with good looking maps. It is executed perfectly but it does not elevate. It does not pass the Tjoconth test. B5, I CAST THEE FROM THIS SACRED AND FORBIDDEN PLACE TO DWELL IN SQUALOR WITH THINE BRETHREN.

AD&D 2e:

Nearly all of these are pre-5 star rating system, and the translation might not be straightforward. Bruce Cordell did fine work undoing the (somewhat deserved) bad name of 2e adventures in the last days of the 2e era, with a lot of work that would merit the coveted 4 star rating. 5 stars though? The one possible candidate for the rating would be Dawn of the Overmind, a majestic conclusion to an epic three part series involving the Illithid, which has the PCs travel to a disc-shaped megastructure orbiting a sun, explore a mere iota of its surface, delve through 3 (excellent) dungeon levels and fight all manner of alien terrors, and finally sojourn to a dyson sphere, blow it up and run away from the Avatar of Ilensine. Oh and you kill Maatzecorians avatar. It’s the D&D equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers, loud, big, pompous and a little stupid, but what a thrill ride.

Lotfp:
In the middle of silent nights, I miss Lotfp. I wonder how the old girl is doing. After my Carcosa campaign ended we moved to Lotfp and played through some of the classic modules, including Stargazer, Doom of the Crystal Headed Children, Tale of the Scarecrow, Grinding Gear and the beginning of BtAM. I have had my share of vocal criticism to level at some of the more dubious entries on the label, but two works stood out as being of absolute superior merit.

Better then Any Man and Thulian Echoes by Zzarchov Kowolski. Better then Any Man is a grand tour de force that pulls all the stops, embodying everything Lotfp is about, for better and for worse, and the WG4-like hidden doorway to Insect Hell is the cherry on top. Deserving of status. Thulian Echoes is a fantastic take on the time travel adventure and Kowolski manages to integrate a high concept seamlessly into the framework of NGR, which is par for the course. Unlike 99% of the supposedly ‘innovative’ works today, Thulian Echoes is genuinely smart and manages to break new ground. Stay in both cases.

In the third party listings, only Gardens of Ynn stands out. I have no idea what Emmy Allen is up to these days, between making DnD games about being gay in a tunnel, having meltdowns in the foreword and warily eyeing nearby windows for Zak S-sponsored killsquads, but boy do I miss the old days. Gardens of Ynn created a system for exploring a foreign realm of indefinite size from a single point of egress, essentially abstracting the levels and rooms of a traditional megadungeon into a continuum, with encounters gradually phasing into eachother as you plumbed deeper levels, creating the impression of a general transition. Fine atmosphere, good concepts, vampiric super fae, encounters that risked stranding characters until they found a way out, it was Artpunk before it started to stink up the place and groom kids on the OSR-Discord.

Labyrinth Lord
Labyrinth Lord feels like a cammed version of your favorite movies, but for a long time it made B/X accessible to a whole generation of gamers, so more power to Dan Proctor. Only one work has earned a place among the greatest. Michael Curtis built upon the works of his predecessors and produced the ultimate megadungeon experience Stonehell, grand, majestic, deep and deadly as hell. Information presentation is great, encounters are great, monsters are great, maps are great. It’s all great. Get Stonehell!

Misc. OSR
A few leftovers. Many Gates of the Gann by Guy Fullerton is probably still the best evocation of TSR Era AD&D 1e in officially published format (though Trent’s Melonath Falls might give it a run for its money), and with its terrific Science Fantasy premise, environment that allows for deep mastery, sprawling map, factions, deadly opponents and lethal traps. One of the few dungeons that does feel like it go toe to toe with some of the TSR greats and not get its face kicked in.

In the Name of the Principle! by the sublime Gabor Lux shall remain in the listings. Laserbeams and Sandals. The players are embroiled in a plot to assassinate the Tyrant of a city-state. ItNotP creates an open-ended environment, with guard patrols, behaviors, locations and shit-bag dirty tricks so that the players can tackle the problem in any of a variety of ways. Hitman by way of Hawkmoon and Empire of the East. It’s also completely free so you can just download it.

D20
Really old reviews. The only one that comes close is Fantasy Flight’s Grimm supplement, which managed to condense and overhaul the unwieldy mess that was D&D 3.5 into 6 rich levels, suitable for short campaigns in a land of dark fairytale, with an intriguing premise, enough material to tantallize and inspire but not overwhelm, character classes based on kids and a focus on problem solving. It’s not entirely my cup of tea but I can’t conceive of anything that was better for the D20 system so good on you for saving souls. Material of high quality is presented with admirable density. Can you actually play it? Probably.

5e?

Time a demotion. As a bonus both of these were from doners, so please forgive me if I hurt your feelings. There are two entries that are listed as 5 stars in the listings: Oswald’s Mines, Claws & Princesses and Beings From Beyond by Ben Evans. Looking back at Mines, Claws and Princesses, it retains much of its charm, the myth, the evocative language, the interactive environment, the Dragon at the end! and its certainly the best 5e (sort of) adventure I have reviewed. Can it go toe to toe with the eldest, the greatest, the highest of the high? Reading back every encounter I read is a solid hit. I am going to keep this one perfunctoritly.

Beings from Beyond is a very welcome and fresh take on the planes, re-imagining the devils, demons, angels and whatever the fuck Chaotic Good celestials are in a way that evokes the wonder and infinite possibility of the Planes and does not suck, and adding a sleuth of new planescape-esque monsters to the mix while it’s at it. Its definetely very good, I’m not quite ready to call it brilliant or among the best, and my frame of reference for bestiaries is underdeveloped. Busting it down to a 4 for the time being. If you are a 5e GM you should probably still get it, it’s very good, especially by 5e standards.

Sounds about good. No Artpunk Vol 1. made it to the Hottest Small Press list and is currently hovering at a very respectable Silver bestseller rating after only a month. If you haven’t checked it out yet and you want to give some money to the Autism Research Institute, now is your chance, as it will soon be free. If you just want to check it out, you can always download it for free and decide afterward.

Have a fine weekend!





11 thoughts on “2022 5-star rating spring-cleanup

  1. B1 and B2 pre-date B/X. Just a nit. They are Holmes Basic.

    How about a page on the site with a list of the products and rating? I know it would be useful to someone getting started.

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  2. Seems reasonable to me. I will maintain my support for S4 as being the quintessential 1E thrill ride; if I was restricted to one word when describing Gygaxian classics, it would be “fun”.
    I have only one candidate for a 5 star 2e module: that would be WGR6 City of Skulls, which I think is the best high(ish) level rescue the prisoner scenario. It has the specificity that Kidnap the Archpriest (which is very good) lacks.(Night Below drags a bit in book 2, so maybe only 4 stars.)
    Is there a roleplaying adventure that does a military campaign (most likely as the epic backdrop to a number of small unit actions) really well? Possible candidates are Red Hand of Doom (3e), Road to Urik (2e Dark Sun) and from one of your recent reviews, Under the Waterless Sea. I think we are still waiting for the 5 star version to appear. The Fantasy Trip solo Dark Lord’s Doom does it as well as any (albeit with the limited options that necessarily come with a solo adventure).
    You have written (in collaboration with Malrex) two adventures yourself that deserve consideration. Palace is beautifully crafted; Red Prophet Rises leapt off the page, finally someone had managed to distil the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film caves into module form.
    I am continuing my reading of No Artpunk 1: at the moment I am finishing up City of Bats, which is marvellous. If you want to produce an homage (rather than bloated retread) to the likes of C1 and S4, this is how to do it. In the round I am struck by the variety the authors have produced using the humble dungeon as a basis.

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    1. Palace and RPR I’d rate at 4, I need humility. For Vaults I will aim for the highest.
      WGR6 I’ll put on the list. S4 I will ponder long and hard, as I could easily solve my rating problem by adding it to the roster. Curiouser and curiouser. Maybe a Hagiography will help me hash it out.

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    1. SUD is spectacularly imaginative but not to the point i’d call it a masterpiece, a high 4 I think? BMSF is neat but needs expansion, again a very high 4. It’s a gut thing. You know it when you see it. I’d have rated them higher if my frame of reference had not been expanded.

      Carcosa gets to stay as a 5 I think.

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  3. Interesting that you should call out both The Halls of Tizun Thane and The Lichway from White Dwarf. Both were written by the late Albie Fiore, who contributed much other material to White Dwarf. He was a professional architect (in the days before CAD, natch) and you can see that in his drawings and maps of the Halls.

    For the truly curious, you can see him in this regional magazine show from 1984, both showing off a dungeon map I don’t recognise, and refereeing a game of D&D for the curious, including as players Ben Elton (standup comedian and author), Ian Livingstone (co-founder of Games Workshop and Eidos) and Steve Jackson (no, not that one, the other co-founder of Games Workshop).

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  4. “Labyrinth Lord … Only one work has earned a place among the greatest.” That last part has always bothered me. I always felt it just wasn’t very well supported.

    And it Tsojcanth.

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    1. Some Labyrinth Lord products are close: Inn of Lost Heroes; Blood Moon Rising; Slumbering Ursine Dunes; Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. And I would add Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers. (Are you going to write the sequel Malrex?)
      I review Palace of Unquiet Repose to be, at heart, a Labyrinth Lord module. Melan doesn’t throw five stars about, and that is what he awarded. Whilst authors must advertise, I am glad Prince has not followed early RPGPundit and written reviews of his own products. (And RPGPundit seems to have switched to posting videos with sightings of his cute cats, which is an improvement.)
      I guess OSE is the B/X clone of choice these days. I am getting increasing convinced about the merits of 1E (and 2E, thinking of it as house-ruled 1E); if we could drop percentile strength (one of the greatest causes of dice fudging), I’m in.

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      1. “Some Labyrinth Lord products are close” Thanks, I have some of those on my list, I’ll look into the others.

        “I guess OSE is the B/X clone of choice these days.” Ugh, don’t get me started.

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  5. ” I have no idea what Emmy Allen is up to these days, between making DnD games about being gay in a tunnel, having meltdowns in the foreword and warily eyeing nearby windows for Zak S-sponsored killsquads, but boy do I miss the old days. ”

    I checked. Playing and blogging about V:tM fifth edition (fine) but on the “what this edition really needs is rules for Daughters of Cacophony and Kiasyd” train (no accounting for taste I suppose). Apparently a remaster of Ynn is coming “not soon”, which I hope decodes to “actual print run, not POD shitbrick quality.”

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