The Trials of Ngura (2020)
Morten Braten (Xoth.net)
Lvl 3 – 4
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Something something something for all the promises of S&S something something something actual number is low something something this is an exception.
Dr. Braten strikes again. A glancing blow that still achieves the impossible of making 5e feel like its gritty S&S fantasy. Yes you need a bit of tinkering. Yes this one could have used a bit more follow through to the point where I can almost read the dopamine levels dropping and yes, this still reads like it should have been written for ASSH or AD&D 1e but damn it it’s still S&S dnd that doesn’t suck.
Premise is god tier S&S. No elves. No tiefling bards. No continual light lamps. The nomadic herdsmen of the arid wastes of Shoma select their tribal king by hosting a series of games at the Horns of Ngura, an ancient sanctum dedicated to a bull god. The PCs are at the games either to act as champions of one of the largest tribal leaders OR more appropriately, to rob the fucking place while the games are ongoing. Meanwhile, there is some creepy shit going on with the ‘brides of Ngura’ the priestesses given as children to serve at the temple and by creepy I mean Maze of the Minotard creepy.
So is this the best bull-god themed S&S adventure evar? The devil is in the details.
At its core this is very solid. We get a location that can be adventured through in the classic sense, complete with a set of catacombs underneath, some secret doors, guards etc. Etc, or the PCs might ignore it entirely and just try to win the games. The riches of the temple are renowned throughout the region. There’s distructable pillars that can be brought down, or statues that can be pushed to splatter the unwary. Also there is a fucking Golden Bull statue that the half-giant priestess can animate so it acts as a Gorgon. A mini-maze section below with a portcullis trap so the PCs are locked in with infant minotaurs. Craftsmanship (traps, map, secret doors, treasure placement, awesome treasure) is about standard-good for an AD&D module, a.k.a far above the norm for 5e adventures.
What is missing is organization. The human defenders of the temple needed to have alarms, an order of battle, and some idea of what to do in case of said alarm. Maybe a list of where the guards are, approximately, by day and by night, and then a reduced list for during the games? This seems written in a way that a direct assault is tricky (after all, there are hundreds of nomads outside during the games, and they would probably take umbrage), but its not really written in a way to facilitate any sort of stealth. There’s NPCs but there’s nothing to really exploit, no flaw or inner weakness. Maybe put a guy in there who is in love with the priestesses and will help in exchange for one or two of them? Maybe the eueuch isn’t really that into being in the cult. Maybe a recent priestess falls in love with the PCs, or just wants to leave because there is weird shit happening in the catacombs, and the PCs can exploit that? Maybe some guy is captured, but he is actually an asshole and now the PCs are fucked?
Yes I am spoilt because this thing does all the basics very well but it was aiming for the fucking stars and now we are barely making it into orbit. It frustrates me too because at the end of the temple section, Dr. Braten briefly glosses over these things in 3 paragraphs during which he gives no specific examples, which saddens me. And I have a right to be sad because me and Aaron wrote the best Bull-God specific S&S adventure for the OSR and it more or less covers these things.
The Games…meh. Mostly straightforward ability score checks with a chance to get mauled by a bull if you fuck up. I mean it reads really cool. Stand up to a charging bull while painted red and wearing only a shield. Pull two bulls by the tails. There’s a riddle and there’s a math puzzle in there too, but I am looking for something more gameable. There is one good suggestion for when the PCs lose, but the PCs should be able to come up with that on their own; if they lose, sneak into the temple at night, leave a bag of foreign robes in the priests quarters, then during the crowning, accuse the other guy of treachery. Perfect!
I don’t want to sound like this adventure is boring, it really is not. The flavor is good. The monsters are almost all standard but used in a context that makes them feel properly Swordery & Sorceric. There’s a few custom items that are awesome and some weird effects from altars and statues that, will probably end up not seeing that much use. Temple of Hypnos it ain’t.
There’s a section added on where the PCs venture into a canyon to fetch the skull of one of the founders of the tomb, only to receive a bunch of visions that culminate into getting fake murdered by a Giant-King wielding a great vorpal blade, but its mostly tombs with shadows, a mummy here and there…its not phoned in but compared to Braten’s habitual pitch, this is tame indeed.
So at its core, decent S&S, more Imaro then Conan. Dancing girls that charm the players. Weird bull cult shenanigans. Petty tribal rivalries. Restless spirits. Games of physical prowess and mental acuity. But the organization, or improvisation the GM must do to get it to go brrrrr kind of busts this one down. Solid but it could have been much stronger.
A weary ***
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13 thoughts on “[Review] The Trials of Ngura (5e); Met de hakken over de sloot”
The best bull-god adventure eh? I think Kobold Caves of the Golden God might have some dethroning to do!
That’s the spirit! Contest announcement coming soon!
In anticipation of the contest I’ve made some maps (not sure which I’ll go with, we’ll see what the parameters are) but there may or may not be a sequel to swords and Sewercery in the mix.
And I should confess for transparency or whatever people call it nowaday, Kobold Caves, while featuring a golden bull-God, isn’t really themed around it.
This is certainly fine. Parameters of NAP will be similar to the first one.
There is also Chainsaw’s “The Brazen Bull”, the best of the three adventures in Rats in the Walls and Other Perils. That has the sort of detail which fires the imagination.
Sword & Sorcery adventure with bull cult? Um…
RE “More Imaro than Conan”
That is not a bad thing. Probably an avenue that needs MORE exploration.
I wonder, sometimes, if Conan really is the best model for D&D (even S&S-flavored D&D). Yes, I know he was a big influence on the game, mentioned in just about every early version of the rules. However, fun as the Howard stories are, the Big C is a bit of a “Gary Sue,” no? And while it’s easy to grok the wish-fulfillment pleasure of reaping one’s enemies with naked broadsword in clenched fist, that’s not purely what D&D is about, is it?
Perhaps it’s been too long since I’ve read Howard. People of the Black Circle is (perhaps) my favorite story of his, due in no small part to its spotlighting of the all-too-human Khemsa character.
Sorry…my mind is wandering this morning.
Not to worry. People of the Black Circle stood out as having the best female lead, as well as the most evil magicians in a Conan short story. A heady tonic of conjuration, body control, hypnosis and even darker arts. Conan, for me, will always be centre of mass for the genre, even if Leiber arguably surpassed him.
That being said, S&S is a bit of a ghetto and it is nice to see people branching off into other avenues like Saunders (whom I have not read), K.E. Wagner, C.A. Smith or even some precursors like Harold Lamb, though god willing Lin Carter will be omitted.
Ha! I’m currently reading Lamb right now (Wolf of the Steppes, vol. 1), though I wouldn’t really call it S&S…not enough sorcery. Swords & Saddles maybe?
“Best female lead?” In a Conan story? In a Howard story? In an S&S story? I would beg to differ on all counts. BUT…the heart wants what the heart wants.
Re Lin Carter
*sigh* Poor Lin. Writers have to eat, too, O Prince.
Love me some KEW and CAS, both full of stories to inpsire. So many! The Tale of Satampra Zeiros is my quintessential D&D adventure and everything KEW wrote influences my tone and content.
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Just thinking about these stories makes me want to grab my pen and graph paper, but it could be the pomegranate wine talking!
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Someone has been dipping into the Vintage of Atlantis!
Lamb’s stories have Sword but no Sorcery, therefore they should be called Sword 😛
Many of the Zothiqude/Hyperborea stories are basically straight up D&D stories. The Master of the Crabs, while not on par with his earlier tales, always struck me as particularly D&Dish, I can’t quite put my fingers on the reason.
Every discussion of S&S needs Moorcock
I remember one upon a time I had a talk and ran a Stormbringer adventure from White Dwarf as a proxy for a trip through the netherworld. There’s a DDC module, with a similar plot.