[Review] Holy Mountain Shaker (OSE); While the Iron is Hot

[Adventure]
Holy Mountain Shaker (2021)

Luka Rejec (Necrotic Gnome Press)
Lvl 5 – 6


Following the recommendation of a loyal reader by the name of Shuffling Wombat, I did indeed purchase one of Mr. Rejecs modules and see if/how his stance on gaming impacts his actual writing. In many ways it does; Holy Mountain Shaker is not something that one runs out of the box without careful study and likely excision of the more cumbersome elements (although you might be a brave man and go for it as is). At the same time, its flaws pertain more to organization and implementation then being necessarily incomplete.

The premise is laudably ambitious, perhaps a bit too much for characters of levels 5-6, and covers a descent into the ancient Holy Mountain, following ominous earthquakes, through the ruins of ancient civilizations, in search of the cause. There is a plethora of science-fantastical elements, the undead remnants of piscine civilizations, magical animals, a ticking clock, decaying civilizations, and a giant god fish that lurks in the heart of the mountain and comes across as someone trying to fit three alternate universe versions of Deep Carbon Observatory into a single 56 page point-crawl.

The town is mostly abstracted with 3 factions holding a total of 8 rumors and these are actually set up in an interesting way, where they are all red herrings but they will spur initial investigation, then a likely return to the town, followed by dismay as the quakes do not cease. There is a simple but robust timeline of 6 days, with increasing rewards being offered each day, as well as a massive quake rendering one of the entrances unusable. Some intrigue or fleshing out of the towns is an option but given the limited time-span, it is likely the PCs will want to get onto the mountain proper asap.

The adventure is a pointcrawl, effectively a hexcrawl with bounded directions, of sixteen locations total, following three alternate routes, and contains occasional secret passageways to bypass certain areas so as to incentivize exploration. The system for adjudicating it is introduced in 2 pages and I must confess it feels baroque. We introduce a new unit of measurement, the Watch, which is composed of 12 turns, and is used to measure overland progress. Begging my lord’s pardon, but what is wrong with using turns and hours? A random encounter is set to occur every watch, there are procedures for investigating the area (which takes up additional time but reveals additional features). Normally it takes 2 watches to travel through a region, but if the PCs spend 2 watches fully exploring it, it thereafter takes only a single watch to traverse. So far so good. I think it would have been a good idea to cover the interaction of resting with a random encounter but as a system it covers most of the basics.

I’m a bit skeptical of the ability to avoid monster encounters entirely by using spending a watch (with differing associated chances of doing so, although they are always at least 50%), as doing so automatically triggers another encounter. I am reminded of the Wilderness Evasion tables and wonder if these would not have sufficed, with the minor addition: Rushing through an unexplored area is possible but has a large possibility of getting the characters lost, which means more watches, which means more encounters and time pressure etc. etc. Likewise the abstraction takes into account only movement rates of under or above 60, while giving a base rate and adjusting it would have allowed for other factors (what if, say, the PCs are using mounts, or use flight?). The whole works but is a bit clunky.

Welcome to Pointcrawl Hell!


Random Encounters (challenges) proper cover the entire pointcrawl, with 3 sub-entries for each separate area and mostly consist of static effects that inflict damage or fatigue unless a saving throw is made, with the occasional area specific creature thrown in for good measure. It feels a little…static? There are environment specific hazards like falling pillars or collapsing areas that can be bypassed without hazard if the right equipment (like rope) is utilized but the general areas are straightforward resource depletion. An additional sub-system moderates the collapse of the mountain when the party has successfully aided the Holy Mountain Shaker, the Giant Fish god, and travels into his gullet to free him of his ache, and means that the party suffers increasingly hazardous complications the longer they take to get back to the village, with possible death (and maybe some treasure) as a result.

Encounters proper are colorful. In a module this compressed, the sensible option, reskinning existing monsters, is undertaken with a minimum of fuss, with a few new additions adding spice and variety. Shadows are reimagined as the radioactive ghosts of a ruined metropolis-esque society, there is a Bosh reference from Logan’s Run, there are sacred animals that provoke challenge roles if molested, robot spiders with wood golem stats, fish-wights and my favorite was the 18 foot golem of an Emperor that animates if his crystalline sarcophagus is molested, using simple frost giant stats. The truth is that very often, the wheel need not be re-invented, and the selection is suitably varied. In addition, natural hazards are actually present, something which is often omitted. It feels like an expedition.

Encounter use is novice-level praxis with a Level 1 certification in the Bryce-lynch encounter design course i.e. you will get occasional powerful monsters that should be avoided, monsters that guard treasure and will only attack if molested and there is the odd special encounter to add substance. A strange orb in a ruined city that if destroyed frees the permanently frozen inhabitants back to a shadowy existence. There are a handful of these types, scattered about, but the bulk is fairly straightforward encounters with a single creature type. A stray npc that may be picked up, a golem servant pining for a lost mistress, but not much in the way of faction play or opportunities for infiltration. Complicated orders of battle, different enmities, alerts or something would spice this up.

Treasure is very good. Hidden, occasionally guarded, the amounts are right, and magic items are given the exact correct amount of description, which is 2 sentences. My favorite was a 3 set halfling ring which renders the bearer invisible but causes 1 damage per watch, a second function which causes continual light but also causes damage, and an offsetting which causes no damage but emits a high pitched noise that irritates dogs and other animals.

My main gripe with Holy Mountain Shaker lies not in its content but in the format. I believe this is the OSE standard and I would urge caution. Observe.

Despair (overwhelming).

The top text is near lifeless. A description would normally create a vivid image that the GM can breathe life into but without the connecting tissue of sentences one must strain to squeeze the imagery from the few nouns and adjectives as water from a stone. There is a power to language that is extinguished here. Everything is compressed so the various wonderful environments come and go without leaving a mark. This is a rare example when MORE text would have worked quite well. A brief description or introduction to each area prepares the mind of the reader, allowing him to interpret the area and invest it with the appropriate gravitas.

The constant abstraction means the relations between objects are never clear and the interactions with each location feel finite and restrained, a far-cry from the open-ended nature of a good game of DnD.

Take this example. Swim the lake 2 turns. You find a boat later, 1 turn, 3 turns to repair it, whatever. You take this action, only then do you find the secret door. Everything feels like it has fixed solutions.
If the lake is given physical dimensions one can account for any number of attributes and permutations but because of the abstraction the way in which locations can be utilized is necessarily curtailed. It comes across as bowdlerized and limited. A 4500 foot shaft, fucking awesome…but then its just the same shit again, take 2 watches, here is some shit to explore bob is your uncle.

Somewhere in N-space is an alternate universe version of Holy Mountain Shaker that is about 78-86 pages long, and has a 1-3 maps and a small encounter key for each of its 15 areas (including the Shaker itself, which could easily have been a dungeon), it is written in a human tongue and is rated a high *** to low ****. The distances are handled like they are in D1, there are simple random encounter tables moderating the whole, and the expanded exploration options are dealt with by simply adding areas of the submaps that may or may not be explored. The effort would be considerable, but perhaps it would be worth it.

This clearly took a lot of effort, has good bits and if you are one of those weirdos who buys modules for inspiration, a chopshop and you can read this newspeak without bleeding from your eyes this might just be up your alley. I am going to very hesitantly flunk this as the cost of experimentation in the pointcrawl format. It is, however, nowhere incomplete or rules light. Was it the editing?

**/*** if you buy it for inspiration


23 thoughts on “[Review] Holy Mountain Shaker (OSE); While the Iron is Hot

  1. A very thoughtful review, thanks for posting. I plan to actually try and read UVG within the next several months. I’ll keep your observations in mind.

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  2. I had a hard time reading Holy Mountain Shaker at my first go, for reasons that you mention as well as some others. One big problem is that there are many things rendered masterfully in picture, and many things one would want to know the look of on the same page, but seldom do they connect. The stern resistance to write a single full sentence makes it very hard to read sequentially. Spatial relations are rather unclear when read in a standard manner.

    Then I loosened by mind *wink, wink* and stopped reading it sequentially. Instead I saw structure. This is not a sequentially written artifeact, this is built in layers. Yeah, man, Layers! You gotta squint at that thing! So my recommendation for reading that booklet is: Read the heading and look at the picture, read the highlighted words and first get inspired to ask the questions what YOU would make out of those elements, then wander around to see what is being suggested and BAM, what Luka writes CONNECTS to the questions. Only then could I actually realize what is going on, how stuff interacts.
    Treat it as the notes you manually wrote down to your own adventure, you prepared six months ago. Start reading in the back and middle, hop around. Non linear layered digestion. Powerful imagery and archaic vibes will result. For which you get actually quite o lot of pre-defined interaction from which you can then improvise.

    Also, the watch rules are cumbersome and annoying when first read, but then, you take out a D12 to check at which turn stuff happens, if something happens!! Get it, a D12, because a ‘watch’ is 12 turns, and that divides babylonically nicely by 2,3,4,6! See it?? Awesome. If I would hexagonize this module, I would indeed go for 1h and use a d6. But the two-hour ‘watch’ is put to good use by the D12, the cubed pentagon. My real gripe is, that he should have called it a double-hour, twin-hour, twour, spelunkers hour, mountain hour, something that immediately explains itself but keeps the playful artificiality of the new unit. Cause a ‘watch’is already another unit of time, dammit!

    The interaction between the challenges table and regional encounters took me quite a while to wrap my head around, but now it is obvious. Using standard verbiage could have helped immensely. ‘Encounter table’ or even “run-ins” are better.

    As for the content I think due to it’s point crawl nature and mythical vibes it should be suited very well for children and lends itself to non-violent solutions nearly all the way through. True singel room exploration material, sadly, the point-crawl takes out the strategic-level exploration.

    The whole affair is not scene-based, but scenery-based, intermingled with the archaically mythical with non-trivial links to the modern like the city-dragon that Treeshaker(sic!) in the Son of the White Mare vanquises. What did not click for me are the stylistic breaks, when the mythical is replaced by Tin-Tin cleanliness and boredom, p- 21, wtf?. Also, the hyper-compressed nugget-format often uses words I honestly had to look up, making the flights of fancy cumbersome at a moment were they should be inspiring.

    Never, though, does the authors creativity or vision come off as trying to be smart or obtuse or grand standing. I sensed an authentic voice that pressed non-linear (pan-semiotic) 3d thoughts into a constrained format. I think it is telling that not in UVG nor here do we get an actual dungeon. I know DMs like that and I have run my fair share of sessions like that and know how the notes look. Very similar.

    And I guess this is what the author recently was getting annoyed over. If you prepare an adventure for yourselves like that, it will never run twice the same, and it really does not matter too much how the spatial arrangement is. The poetically mythical is allowed to remain in the corner of your eye. This can be either frustrating or liberating, depending on circumstance. In the whole I am very thankful for this module.

    That all said, if I used it in a proper campaign, I would create dungeon levels form several of the sceneries, and make a 3D representation hexagonizing (or maybe a stacked dodecahedron structure would be fitting best! Man, this might be way to solve 3D arrangements right there! Stacked d12s!) the mountain and so on.

    Can also be run as-is at a convention. **** from me, with a -* applied for artwork and text not interacting as I hoped, which puzzles me as artist and author are one and the same, for a very stable 3-stars. Well worth its money and easily adaptable into any campaign.

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    1. @ Settembrini:

      I find your “review within a review” very intriguing…so much so that I might actually purchase this adventure (whereas previously I was a hard “no” on its merits…artistic inspiration holds little enticement for me). Different, interesting game mechanisms are certainly worth exploring.

      And, yet, is this really the kind of thing one wants in a pre-written adventure? A DM can make his/her own symbology and procedures and interactions that best fit their group…presumably DMs know their own table better than any author. It appears the author put a lot of effort into making an adventure that works as unfolding abstract…but I run a campaign, not a series of vignettes tied together by a theme.

      This seems better suited for a convention or single session deal. Maybe a “side lark.”

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    2. Two hour watches ARE a thing in some circumstances. Works much better than four hours if you’re watching a camp or something like that. Indeed, in a standard adventuring party of four, it probably should be the standard watch length. Four hours of sleep is a LOT less than six.

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  3. I can’t tell how much of Settembrini’s comment is taking the piss and how much is sincere, but either way this product sounds totally unappealing to me. It seems very artificial and constrained and abstract and I’ll never understand why writing in sentences is now considered to be a bad thing. I never stand why Bryce doesn’t like to read because in order to maintain his pace he had to be able to finish everything in a single sitting of presumably no more than an hour or so, but I don’t understand why so many other folks have willingly followed him over the cliff. In my day we always read a module 3 or 4 times before running it and took notes and marked it up and internalized as much of it as possible, and doing so made the play experience better, because the DM knew and had thought about the material. The idea that that time investment isn’t worthwhile and that something with enough depth and detail to require it is bad, seems utterly backwards and reductive to me.

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    1. “The top text is near lifeless. A description would normally create a vivid image that the GM can breathe life into but without the connecting tissue of sentences one must strain to squeeze the imagery from the few nouns and adjectives as water from a stone. There is a power to language that is extinguished here…” -Prince.

      Just by the example page, I don’t think I would want to run this and agree with Prince’s comment. It’s too…jarring and choppy? I think all the components are there and it looks like there is a bunch of creativity going on, but I’d prefer a smooth opening paragraph that would be easier to paraphrase to inspire interaction. Then, the way it is organized with the bullet points for the DM section, I could get behind–as I want those parts easy to scan.

      I like Trent’s comment because that’s how I like to prepare when DMing–reading over everything a few times, unless it’s my own stuff, because then everything can just flow. Much like performing a speech–wouldn’t you want to practice it before going out on stage to give it? BUT–I do think there is a place for scanning material and that’s why I like the bullet point and bolded approach for the DM section of an area. Too many times, I’ve sat there as a player watching the DM wade through paragraphs to find something (or do it myself)…having a balance is a good thing.

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    2. That is certainty how I prepare for running a module. It is a boon that print versions often come with cheap/free pdfs these days, as I do like to mark up a copy of the maps, for example to work out which groups might come to the aid of another, and how they will approach.

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    3. I’d argue it is not artificial but natural and authentic to the style of the author.
      As much as Melanoth falls takes a certain kind of mindset and effort to read, so does Holy Mountain Shaker. It is just different: do not read sequentiylla, but look at Heading, look at pricture look at bold printed words, imagine, then read the fine print.

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      1. @Settembrini –I think I might be a lazy DM or not quick-witted. I’ll admit it. But I need a ‘buffer’. A descriptive paragraph to paraphrase provides me that buffer. Buffer = time, for players to hear the description of the room/area and think about what they want to do while I can think about the other 100 things a DM has to think about. A buffer helps me make my game run smooth. Looking at the heading, picture, and bolded words–ok…but the imagine part is where I find it jarring. Yeah, I know D&D is all about imagination, so I feel weird saying it, but the timing of when I have to imagine the room doesn’t work for me personally. It’s going to slow my game down. I would prefer to have my imagination time after I have set up my buffer (a paraphrased description) and don’t have all eyes on me— waiting on me.

        I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing this adventure, because that’s unfair as I haven’t read it myself, but here is my initial reaction to what’s presented: Looking at Waterwight Tomb (and I realize there isn’t a picture to look at which might help?)–I got 2-3 seconds to imagine what a injector machine looks like (do you walk into it? sit in it? is it hovering over coffins?) and not sure how the trigger reanimation works (because I missed the ‘reanimation’ trigger word) or when that takes place from the description, or how the coffins move if they are encrusted with dripstone but suddenly they are floating down a river…now after about 2-3 minutes of looking at the description, things make more sense, and I can throw something together….but my players have been looking at me for 2-3 minutes or actually, probably their phones playing Angry Birds, completely disinterested in watching me having an imagination battle in my head.

        Also, The Small Lake title doesn’t help me with my imagination. Looking at the map–The Deep Mines, The Underground River, the Great Lake…..is there a Wet River too? The other descriptions are sooo much better–The Goldhorn’s Doom, the Needle Gnomes….yeah! I want to explore that!

        The organization works–the description talks about coffins and injector….so the bullet points are in that order as well. There is some trigger words–intoxicating aroma = intoxicating sap. Also the ideas presented in the review sounds like overall there is some good creativity going on. I’m glad that there are people who prefer this format, have the mindset, and can run it that way–more power to em, but its just not for me. Smooth out that first paragraph to give me that buffer, and then I’m totally behind the bullet points to help with my imagination time.

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  4. The name… I keep seeing a mountain shaped salt shaker in my mind.
    Otherwise, l agree with your lordship, m’lord!
    UVG + Cha’alt?

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  5. Thank you for such a prompt review. I think your points are justified, and I will withdraw my previous comment that Holy Mountain Shaker is a contradiction to Luka Rejec’s views concerning what a module should be. It is almost as though he has replaced B/X (which is what OSE is) with his own substitute exploration system, and mapped dungeons with random generation. This lands right in the middle of potential “hexagonal wheel” territory, in that you have something that works, but awkwardly, and you have ignored a previous invention. I do think levels 5 to 6 are about right, as access to all party swift travel (e.g. teleport, carpet of flying) could wreck the watches mechanic, and powerful divination might be too helpful.

    Having said that, there is a considerable amount of imaginative material. (The small treasures table is a good one.) I like dungeons to have secrets, and a major part of the challenge is to work out what is going on. A feature I particular enjoy is the dynamic nature of the threat, and trying to judge the optimal time to extract the most money/favour from the powers that be for solving it. I’d go with three stars.

    I would agree with the comment from lots of folk that there is a lack of two or three sentences of descriptive text from several encounters, which if well written and tied to the pictures could inspire the referee. This does seem to be a problem amongst some OSE authors who use the “standard template”, although I note Brad Kerr does allow himself that extra sentence or two of description or detail, which elevates his work.

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    1. @ Shuf (with regard to level restrictions on adventures)

      I personally enjoy the presence of adventure sites in my world that are both “too hard” AND “too easy” for players. I like places that a high level character or two can go and (with the proper gear) pwn some adventure that’s written for 6-8 PCs of lesser ability. That, to me, makes for a more fully realized game world (yes the 5th level magic-user can nuke the giant rat nest with a fireball, but will the treasure be worth her time? Sometimes…if she need charred giant rat as a component of some magic item she’s enchanting),

      That Holy Mountain Shaker’s PROCEDURAL SYSTEM will be broken by high level adventurers does not speak well to its practical usefulness as a modular insert. Again…perhaps better as a one-off or convention game.

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      1. I agree to some extent, but I like the players to be challenged, and what is challenging depends on your resources. A large dungeon would be well suited to your wishes, as more powerful parties would swiftly move to lower levels where the better prizes are to be found. It is well known all giant rat nests have achieve perfection when they have accumulated exactly 2000cp, and I hope your magic-user enjoys the melted remains.
        Probably the best way to get rich with minimal risk is to pull a “Kobort and Turuko from Hommlet”, and ambush weakened parties returning from a delve laden with loot. Then drop a few incriminating clues that a group of rivals did the deed.

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      2. @ Shuf:

        Well…

        I think I’m nearing the point in my world building where resources ARE the challenge, rather than the dungeons themselves. The dungeons are just locations to be visited (and explored and ransacked).

        You know the old phrase “it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there?” I’m beginning to feel more and more that way about ‘dungeon play’ in my game.

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  6. One old school feature: some Gygaxian choices of vocabulary. I was familiar with chthonic but not numinous.

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  7. At a glance (from the preview) it looks like disjointed bullet-hell. Not my cup of tea. I doubt Bryce would put his stamp of approval on it either. He enjoys potent language.

    @Settembrini: I understand that you are saying it is possible to get inside the author’s head and grok his short-hand…I’d just rather not. I rather he make the effort to communicate in something more than outline-form. I (producer of nothing) wag my finger at him for his laziness.

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  8. I just can’t get in to the description ‘paragraphs;’ they come off as unfinished notes I’d write down in a coil notebook as I prepare to write the module.
    I have no issue with condensing information and not typing nice descriptive blocks (I’m quite guilty of it myself) but there’s a way to do it that I’d more natural and makes it easier on the DM. There’s a reason why humans have evolved into using sentences. There is no language I can think of that communicates with the equivalent of point form notes. 1/5 not even worth scrubbing for inspiration due to the un-ease of parsing the author’s ideas

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