Throne of Gondira (2020)
Morten Braten (Xoth.net publishing)
Lvl 4 – 6
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No seriously, why is this a 5e module? Somewhere in the forgotten mists of the D20 dystopia, one man was fighting for Sword & Sorcery in the Cold Steel ruins of the Old World. His name: Morten Braten. He wrote Ancient Kingdoms of Mesopotamia. Now the 3.000 pound dragon is dead, and Morten has moved on. Not, sadly, to the golden lands of the OSR, where the random encounters are ever frequent, and the tables are ever random, but to PF and the lands of 5e. On the plus side, that does mean that we have an author who delivers consistently good material for a system desperately in need of such.
Throne of Gondira is a sword and sorcery module with a capitol S. It lives Sword & Sorcery. It breathes Sword & Sorcery. It grinds S&S into a fine powder and snorts it up with swinish abandon. The module is laced through with quotes from the works of R.E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and C.A. Smith. The demi-humans have been stripped out and replaced with different breeds of men, some barbaric, others decadent or the degenerate remnants of a once great civilization. The orcs and goblins of vanilla fantasy have been replaced with Giant White Apes, Pterodactyls, restless spirits, savage natives and the trademark tasteful sprinkling of science fantasy. A risqué exotic temptress with a barbarous lust for torture. A fallen civilization inhabited by troglodytic remnants. Morten Braten reads more S&S then I do.
The module presents an open-ended location for the PCs to explore. There are entire dungeon levels that might never be found. The jungle metropolis of Gondira was once home to the descendants of the “Giant-Kings of Elder Kuth.” A dissident priest by the name of Sosmet is exiled, and masters the intelligent white apes that inhabit the surrounding jungles, using them to lay waste and enslave the city. The coffers overflow with gold and jewels from the surrounding region. Sosmet dies on his throne, but the apes do not notice his death, and two unscrupulous servants use ventriloquism and misdirection to pose as him, and thus his empire continues but sinks into obscurity. Enter the PCs.
Throne of Gondira is a great module, hampered by the occasional minimalist execution. It is never dealbreaking but it can be tightened up in some places. The first thing we see is a hex-map of the surrounding region, with an inhospitable ring of mountains at its centre, behind which lies the legendary city of Gondira. There are secret passageways into the kingdom (which can be discovered from various inhabitants of the surrounding lands), or players can risk the inhospitable swamp. The hazards are well set up, but the module mentions as an option the very dangerous straightforward climb of the mountains but never follows up, which is a shame.
The surrounding area is fine, if a bit empty. There are villages of savage tribesmen, worshipping the creature of the lake known as Atu-Atu with human sacrifice. There is the shrine of the seven sisters, covertly taken over by three hideous hags. The villagers themselves suffer from multiple problems, as their native mud-god has turned against them, and now they once more pay homage to the White Apes, an unpopular, but necessary decision. The party is embroiled in the drama fairly quickly, and will have to decide between rescuing a lone warrior woman or teaming up with the son of the local chieftain. Several locations, essentially 10-20 room dungeons, are provided, all of them quite good. I think a few paragraph long encounters would have helped flesh out the area somewhat more. It is fine material but it only whets the appetite. The tantalizing descriptions of the Land of Kash, with its halls litten by eerie diamond light almost scream for further development. Occasionally inhabitants of some region are given, but no treasure or random encounter frequency, making one wonder why the PCs should bother exploring the place.
Throne of Gondira retains enough knowledge of old school gaming to be fully useable in that context but occasionally struggles to reconcile these (now mostly vestigial) procedures with its modern system. Random encounters are always provided, but there is no frequency beyond the occasional explicit random encounter check, or the ‘check for any journey of a significant amount of time’ which makes sense in the already combat heavy, turgid modern mode. Conversion would require some sort of frequency, but this is hardly an insurmountable obstacle.
Dungeon design is good. I am jaded from reading 5e material that it is almost shocking to see someone remember all the craftsmanship and apply it in a way that does not completely go against the modern format. Faction play abounds, to the point where I feel commentary is almost unneccessary. You can ally with a tonne of people, but they all have their own motivations, things are not handed to you on a platter, and some allies are actually treacherous assholes.
There are gates to be lifted. Bars to be bent. Secret doors to uncover. Then carvings or statues give hints at the locations of those secret doors, or even diligent mapping. The various traps and glyphs of warding(!) are interspersed with natural hazards; rotting rope bridges, quicksand, slippery stairways, cliffs that must be mounted. There are parts where you can push your luck for extra treasure. I keep forgetting its not a gold for XP game, even though the way this adventure is written, it really should be. The occasional roll DC something is presented in such a natural fashion that I don’t even groan. Treasure is concealed, or nonstandard in a charming way (rubbing sorcerous cave paint on your wounds functions as cure light wounds).
Monster use is good. It avoids the risqué gambit of swapping out all of its monsters with custom shit. Instead it utilizes what is already there, changes the context, and then adds a few custom monsters to amplify the atmosphere. The god of the lake? Triple strength Will-o-the-Wisp. The hideous Snatcher? A Wyvern that looks like a Pterodactyl with some minor statt alterations. The Abomination Xuma-Ur-Agaleth? Use Aboleth statts dummy! Shadows, ghosts, stirges and giant animals. Everything is congruent and fits without being monotonous.
There are few technologies that still need to be unlocked. One is orders of battle and complicated tactics, alerts, a way for intelligent opponents (like the Giant Apes) to respond in force so as to incentivize stealth and caution as opposed to open ability spamming. Fighting in location A should trigger a response from nearby locations. There is already an understanding that not every encounter should be fought, as the plethora of CR 10 monsters attests too, and even the (occasionally) bold decision to use large amounts of monsters. 8d6 giant wasps there we go.
3. The Slithering Guardian
An anaconda (use giant constrictor snake stats) is
coiled up in this chamber. There is a 50% chance that it has
recently digested a meal, and if so, it may be bypassed using
stealth. If hungry or provoked it strikes against intruders with
suprising speed for its bulk.
There are the occasional interesting environmental nuggets, in both the outer regions and the City of Gondira proper. Break the pillars to collapse the ceiling. Negotiate with the Spirit of a Juka priestess and learn the weaknesses of the Mud God or face him and suffer a likely death. Speaking of Death, finally, a module that throws a few punches here and there. Glyphs of warding, Rot Grubs, the occasional CR 10 monster in a level 4-6 adventure. It lacks the brutal killer instinct of the old Gygax modules but you can’t yiff your way through this one like your average 5e snorefest.
The City proper is excellent, a palace, several locations, and a fairly expansive underground realm consisting of 6 floors, interconnected, often via secret passageways. Supremely well done. Occasionally the module’s somewhat terse (for 5e!) writing style works to its disadvantage. There are numerous prisoners to be freed but they tend to be normal commoners. I would have enjoyed a few notes here and there of a reward, or a possible traitor amid the normal prisoners (a wereleopard or something). There is a monster zoo, but no notes on what happens if, say, the PCs decide to set some creatures loose in order to cause havoc. The overland portion screams with potential but gives you little. The GM must adjudicate.
Everything from the Palace proper seamlessly takes S&S tropes and converts them into gameable D&D. The long dead but strangely preserved corpse of Sotar, different groups of White Apes struggling for dominance, the re-animating dead of the lower catacombs, the crushing ball trap, it’s all archetypal stuff. The various powerful NPCs, if they are awakened, do not immediately start blasting, there is an opportunity for chaos, bargaining, and assorted tomfoolery. An ancient Half-Giant Priest King is buried in a science fantasy stasis catacomb on the lower levels, and can be freed and temporarily allied with if one is suitably obsequiouos. There is even a fucking eldritch abomination trapped somewhere. And its done in a way that it doesn’t feel cramped, or too convoluted, there is enough breathing room. Extra bonus points because there are entire levels to Gondira that you might bypass entirely.
There are some fine additions to the canon of DnD, all the more impressive because it is for fucking 5e fergodssake. Corpse-eating White Apes, Rot Grub Swarms (oh yes, they are back baby!), Half-Giant Godkings. Genuinely new magic items are sparse but tasteful, and extant magic items and mundane treasure is given a delicious paint job so that nothing feels out of place.
Throne of Gondira is a great example of seamless emulation of a genre of fantasy that is fundamentally intertwined with the roots of DnD. It doesn’t go overboard with set piece encounters, it can be a bit straightforward and could use a bit more organization, but it nails it where it needs to nail it; atmosphere, vitality and total dedication to an aesthetic. Morten Braten is one dedicated SOB. **** stars, for an exceptional entry, though not on the level of Lost Treasure of Atlantis. Get it if you have been craving some honest to god S&S.
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