The Gemeria Code (2022)
Lvl 3 – 5
Disclaimer: Sponsored content
Part of the joy of having a donation cue is that you come across material that you otherwise never would have investigated. The palette is enriched. Mr. Maynard expressed an interest in an opinion before possibly signing up for No Artpunk II and in an effort to decimate my steadily growing backlog of donations which is by now rearing out of my inbox and threatening to crush me with its tentacles, I am ecstatic to oblige. It is time to challenge the ancient wisdom: Are there good adventures for sale on itch.io?
The answer is a resounding sort of. Maynard’s effort strikes me as that of a bright novice or starting journeyman. There is an abundance of ideas and concepts, both structural and of the Gygaxian building-bloc variety but it is certainly not without its share of flaws and feels a bit uneven but I am…charmed? It reminds me of the adventures in something like the Dungeoneer; very fantastic, with the game elements thoroughly overshadowing any attempt at emulation, to the point where it is at times difficult to figure out how certain characters could have reached certain positions. It has all the hallmarks of ambitious novice design; unique monsters, unique magic items and plentiful dopamine hits.
The premise is that you have sojourned to the once secret abode of Gemeria, a legendary enchantress, artificer and artist known throughout the world (!), in search of her treasures. You won’t be the only one, as two other bands of not so loveable ruffians have already arrived, gotten into quite the slapfight, and are now nursing their wounds in some of the chambers of the complex. The Golden Arms company is a band of mercenaries wielding the enchanted objects of Gemeria (and they have a goddamn basilisk on a leash!) and are now searching for the cypher that will reveal their command word, and the Hand of Balzenoth is a group of occultists led by a spurned apprentice with his cursed gaze and has an Ogre with a Rust Monster in a cage!. Both groups are colorful, have detailed motivations and behavior and have fine names like Mardok Tain and Beastmaster Gaelen. There is the minor griping to do that 40.708 gp worth of treasure, a worthy amount for a party of levels 3-5 for once, seems paltry when contrasted against Gemeria’s world fame but this is a minor gripe, easily remedied. A few perfunctory hooks and we are off to Gemeria’s abode!
Much of your enjoyment of this module is going to depend on your ability to suspend your disbelief and sort of accept the premise that Gemeria would leave clues, partial cyphers and riddles throughout her complex that allow intelligent raiders to effectively bypass the otherwise effective but somewhat nonlethal deterrants that prevent thieves from making away with a great deal of loot. It makes for entertaining gameplay but the result is somewhere north of funhouse land. I mean there are bedrooms, gardens, laboratories etc. but many of it is operating on unique dungeon puzzle logic that doesn’t quite make sense otherwise. If you can suspend your disbelief, there are certainly plentiful things to enjoy.
Unusual for a novice module, the adventure using an overlapping mechanism to sort of structure the action and then integrates other components of the adventure into it. Gemeria has a cypher. Learning the cypher allows you to use certain magic items but also access clues, which in turn lead to more cyphers, or different areas of the map, or treasure, and so on. Uniquely, if the party tarries, and the timing is quite harsh, every expedition counting as one, the two other parties both gain an ability, the occultists getting a new spell, the Golden Company finding a Cypher and unlocking new magical items, some of which are quite formidable (the prosthetic golden hand that acts as a Mace +1 but can function as an energy draining weapon for 1 turn is a prime example!). You are then given proper information so the adventure does not neccessarily devolve into a slogfest so you can instead negotiate, bribe, threaten, trick or indeed, slog and take their shit if that is the appropriate response. The adventure then earns ANOTHER tiny gold prince star by allowing you to use Read Magic or Read Languages to figure out some of these riddles, stating simply ‘Reward the player for their unorthodox spell investment!’ Brings a tear to my eye.
The second gimmick is probably even better and it involves the obsessive amounts of half-finished paintings that are scattered throughout this dungeon, alongside normal finished paintings that are worth quite a great deal. The idea is that by completing the paintings, often with a specific color, you can trigger certain effects, occasionally they function as doors. Let me give you an example. There’s a weird circular hallway, 3 desaturated paintings, one of fire, one of the sea, one of the sky. There is a blank canvas there. What do you do? But no super heavy handed bullshit. There is no magic mouth that says YOU MUST PAINT THE THING HERE. Later on the in the dungeon there are hints, but then there is a second question. What color do you use? How do you get that type of paint? There is a device located somewhere in the dungeon where you can mix ingredients and you have a whole table. That’s what I am talking about. Enthusiasm! Someone was trying. And then a convenient table with all the location of all the ingredients, what paintings they apply too, what colors they represent etc. etc. There is paint thinner here so you can theoretically undo mistakes and I would have liked to see an instance where a painting must be deliberately cleared first before being completed with another color (allude to this in a riddle or whatever), or maybe a variable painting that connects to multiple areas depending on which color you can use. It’s such a neat gimmick, all sorts of options come to mind.
It is not all sunshine and rainbows. The map is not linear but not quite that delicious neural network of arteries, hubs, nodes, side passages that characterizes masterful work. I give it about a B- for effort. The occasional illusionary wall is a welcome benefit, keys to locks are placed probably too close and most of the short-cuts do not add significantly, but there are certainly multiple directions to explore, which is very nice. In lieu of secret doors, the paintings function as a sort of puzzle locks, which is acceptable in a pinch. I never quite found out the use for the chasms, particularly since falling in nets you a neat 1-4 damage before putting you back in Room 1, a concession that reeks of Super Mario, or for you Zoomers out there, Super Mario Galaxy 2. I want to share a particularly good room. The treasure vault can be accessed through the painting of a dragon, but the dragon itself is not painted in, and the color you use determines its color? Ey? Ey? That’s cool!
This is where we for a moment brush off the effusive praise. Yes the magic items are charming, the room descriptions good enough without being verbose, the placement has an occasional concession to concealing valuables via riddle or just concealment (although most of it is grabbable and more or less untended), the monsters are unique if a bit…silly? Whimsical? A hound made of brushes, the dreaded Quill Hawk! Or collections of Carnivorous Glyphs that can be altered by painting them (the idea is intriguing but not explored mechanically). Yes the painting goblins have escaped their abode and will return if you paint something exciting there. A griffon will animate if you take the gem around its neck. I am reminded a bit of a more brief Magician’s House, it has that sense of the whimsical.
Encounter density is very light. 1 in 6 chance of an encounter every 2 turns. The first 10 rooms have no combatants. The much vaunted deadliness of B/X is most an apocryphal meme and you aren’t supposed to throw Save vs Death around like it is going out of style but with the exception of the hooded Basilisk, very much a threat that would probably be telegraphed, the module doesn’t go for the jugular, or even the kneecaps. About the meanest it gets is infecting people with disease from the Blood Hound. It’s a bit too nice for my palette, and would probably be ideal if one wanted to run B/X for its intended audience of precocious 12 year olds. Any possible sources of danger are usually telegraphed very loudly so that only the most bull-headed and inexperienced of players might blunder into them headfirst. Rewards are ample, the entire complex is lighted by magical illumination (I had to dig this out of a room description though) and there is a focus more on the delightful then the hazardous. A sort of mirror-image Jeff Sparks. Is it even DnD if you aren’t being bombarded with burning oil by 12 hobgoblins while 8 hobgoblins with pole-arms and nets arrive 1d4 rounds later to flank you?
What else? You know magic items will be decent in a module like this. If you figure out the cypher, you can tattoo glyphs onto your characters to gain permanent boons, and then a little flourish is employed so that characters that tattoo too many on themselves risk rather nasty ilnesses, a good controlling mechanism against the gluttinous. There is a nice trade-off between coins, objects de art, piles and trinkles, it is all very delightful. Cursed scroll of slow healing…put a periapt of foul rotting in between there every once in a while! Keep them on their toes!
I gripe a lot about orders of battle and tactics and intelligent opponents and this module to its credit actually describes quite well how the few intelligent foes will interact with the PCs and the lack of proper preparation on the hands of the two rival adventuring parties is easily explained by their recent arrival and first devastating encounter but every once in a while, an intelligent encounter that uses the geometry of the level, or uses misdirection, or exploits some sort of deadly terrain feature, can be very interesting. Set traps and then seed them with bait. For large groups, consider things like sentries, orders of battle, fallback positions. Also, what happens if one of the rival adventuring parties attains their goal? Put that on the tabel too!
Arguably one of the first OSE modules I sort of like? It doesn’t use the hideous sub-literate format popularized by core OSE, which is a huge blessing. It comes dangerously close to mood piece but the overlapping dance of cypher, painting and riddle and the ticking clock element sort of carries you through. There are plentiful gripes to be levelled and harrumphs to harrumph but that should not distract from the reality; A charming and ambitious attempt in the ranks of the young and upcoming, worth an encouraging ***, though more hardcore players might be turned off. I am fondly reminded of something you’d find in White Dwarf or the Dungeoneer and unfondly reminded of that wretched Adventure Time animation style.
Let us know what you will make next (and if you can wait 1-2 weeks, No Artpunk II might be just what the doctor ordered).
Check out the Drivethru (!) page here.