[Review] Ud (LL); Growing Pains

[Adventure]
Ud (2017)

Unbalanced Dice Games
Mid level (3-5 seems about right)


Ud is an interesting deviation from UDG’s SOP. Normal ‘UDG’ modules heavily favor dungeon creation in the mode of 70s OD&D; elaborate random tables, fairly simple rooms and single encounters. As time went on, more elaborate orders of battle would start to emerge, however, the focus would always remain on the game as a game FIRST, weird fantasy stuff SECOND. With Ud, this trend is broken.

Ud is a rare foray into RuneQuest/WHF style versimilitude. Many of the conventions of 70s DnD, the elaborate random tables, the intricate rhytm of concealed treasure, traps and encounters is all cast aside in favor of the demented yet internally consistent logic of the fortress of Ud, a devil in the body of a man, who has harnessed all sorts of occult sciences to extract the souls of men and decant them into gold. Served by Pig-men and malicilous dwarves, his lust slaked by Ogre concubines, his fortress is shaped like a giant treasure chest, a manifestation of his boundless greed, and surrounded by enchanted fog, prowled by the zombified detrius of his experiments. As a weird science fantastical aesop about the dangers of greed [1] it is compelling but in many places gameplay has been sacrificed for versimilitude and unwholesome dabbling in 2e railroading practices, ultimately to the adventure’s detriment.


The adventure starts off in 2e fashion; the characters are contacted by a woman seeking to avenge the death of her family, offering no reward and a few hints about the nature of the opposition. The ‘Smoke Fog’ proper takes the form of a hexcrawl surrounding the fortress, with multiple semi-complicating factors adding a bit of variety to this stretch. Visibility is only 10 ft., combat has a chance of disorienting the players (which the players can learn to bypass if they figure out a path using markers), the fog itself exerts one-time debilitating effects (which an actually be bypassed if the PCs are smart enough to consult the giant beavers about them), there are other visitors drawn by greed and the fog itself is home to many encounters, on a lavish d20 table. This section is quite good, and there is a rich mixture of combat, tricks, baffling mysteries to keep everyone interested.

The fortress proper is where I started noticing the first deviations. The woman who accompanies you dissapears halfway through the fog. Random encounters inside the fortress are just pig men. A whole host of advanced adventure techniques and features are introduced but all the old practices are thrown out. What do I mean by this?

Compare Eructation of the Goblin Troll. In Eructation we have a very standard dungeon, corridors, branching pathways, secret doors, rooms with single encounters but lacking major organization, treasure doled out piecemail and occasionally hidden, key or puzzle hunts and some features like having to keep the hearthfire burning or have the characters trapped in the dungeon. It is good but very traditional. Ud has all sorts of interesting complications and possibilities; it is possible to get captured and one has to escape, machinery in the basement can be disabled so the fog can be ‘turned off’, information can be gathered to circumvent certain obstacles and there’s an alarm system in the beginning that can alert some of the fortress’s defenders. The entire demented cycle of experimentation is represented in various rooms in the dungeon. That’s all good. But treasure division is a mess, (extreme parsimony and then a giant haul barely guarded), the map is boring and there are no secret doors, the rooms tend towards naturalism far more then the fantastical (for UDG that is, there are still some interesting rooms) and there are some prisoners you can rescue but no mechanical drawback, nor reward is attached.

There is something a little frustrating about Ud because you can clearly see the potential here. There are enough hints to figure out the nature of Ud and it is possible to find his body but it is locked in an impregnable sarcophagus and unlike previous UDG adventures, learning the nature of the supernatural threat does not meaningfully impact the adventure, nor allow one to proceed faster.

So what does it do well? The atmosphere is bizarre and striking, like some vaguely italian 70s psychedelic horror film. Pig men and evil dwarves herding people into cells and strapping them to some hideous contraption [2], a room for the survivors of the soul-draining process, cells where mindless zombies are bathed into pools of chemicals to be turned into mutant zombies (helmets can be used to control and master them), a bar where you are attacked by a female ogre with lipstick and a blond wig trying to stab you with a broken bottle. The actual encounters are pretty subtle and quite good, you blunder into a Pig Man barracks, with two duelling Pig men. The Dwarf watching challenges one of the PCs to test their mettle against the recruit. Then he surreptitously hands the Pig man a poisoned dagger and when the fight is ongoing will fireball the PCs. A betrayal of almost gygaxian intensity! The confrontation with Ud’s human concubine has fighting men step from a mirror to aid her, and Ud himself is in the process of meditating when the PCs come upon him and the entire fight takes place like a murderous dream.

I am curious to learn what came over UDG when he made Ud [3]. The normal flourishes, the cornucopia of bizarre creatures and unique magic items, have been dialled down, in favor of mostly book items and quite a bit of book monsters. The creativity has been lavished on structural elements, or weird features, rather then simple Gygaxian building blocks. The treasure is peak 2017s UDG i.e. stingy with a few good magic items, but a pile of 11.921 soul gold, fainly murmuring pleas to be set free, does make the entire endaevour seem somewhat worthwhile [3].

Ud is yet another star in the sweeping constellation that is Unbalanced Dice Games, illustrating the full reach of this enigmatic module cobbler. The change and plethora of new techniques render this entry a bit uneven but at the same time there are enough compelling elements to it that I suspect it will fascinate at the table. I suppose adding some sort of alert system to the fortress could have made infiltrating it more tense but as written it feels chaotic in the way that an unholy fortress ruled by a devil and crewed with pig men and evil dwarven magicians probably would feel. A hesitant recommendation.

***



[1] And this would not be the first time, Eructation of the Goblin Troll is essentially about fighting the manifestation of Gluttony by way of alcoholism. If we stretch we might be able to find other such elements in No Sun For a Wicked Moon, Broken God’s Pain and the Destruktion Contraption.
[2] The contraption works btw, there are complete mechanics for extracting gold from a human soul, and the value is very low but enough so it would be attempted, 50 gp + 10 per character level.
[3] Assuming a party of about 4 characters, the 3k each would be enough to propel the characters on the order of halfway from 3rd to 4th level.



9 thoughts on “[Review] Ud (LL); Growing Pains

    1. The erasure of a hierarchy of threats as a result of the abandonment of the framework of AD&D is something worth exploring in another post. UDG has another mid level adventure where the Moon must be saved. I think it unfair to pile on him the sins of an entire movement (Halls of the Blood King is much more egregious for example), but it is true that in this sense, it would be worthwhile to restore proper order to published adventures. The idea of high concepts being intrinsically married to higher levels is too intriguing to abandon, and might spur on the ressurection of high level gaming.

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      1. Thanks, Prince. I definitely respect your thoughts on the issue. Here are a couple of mine:

        1) I wonder if part of the problem of the proliferation of lower level only gaming is that we call levels 3 and 4 “mid” levels. They’re not really in my mind. Using the assumption that they ARE, I can see why some then think of levels 5 and 6 as “high” level gaming. Low = 1-4, Mid = 5-8, High = 9-12, Very High = 13+. Mr. Huso considers very high level gaming to be 14+ as that’s when MUs start learning game altering 7th level spells, and I can certainly buy that. Those categories break down even further into something like Very Low = 1-2, Low = 3-4, Lower Mid = 5-6, Upper Mid = 7-8, etc.

        2) As to the potential of resurrecting high level gaming, my concern is that by not condemning now the artificial nerfing of high level foes so that they can be faced by low level parties (because we’ve run out of truly creative ideas for low levels, I guess), could we be setting ourselves up for the eventual artificial nerfing of higher level PCs (certain spells don’t function for….reasons…, etc.) so that we can justify continuing to write what are essential lower level adventures that are high level in name only? Hope that makes sense.

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      2. @Q

        1) I don’t think the terminology has much to do with it. Long campaigns are rare, most people start at level 1, so as you get higher, the experience with such material will diminish. Also, some people who don’t play DnD at all nevertheless write modules, and it is much easier to write something for low levels when you don’t get the system then it is for high levels.

        2) It does and this has already happened in a sense. I pointed out this problem in my review of the very sub-standard “Halls of the Blood King” for OSE, which suffers from the first problem you outline, the supposed vampire lord of the universe is reduced to a threat level 4-6 characters can fight. The second problem you allude to started with Tomb of Horrors, which was created for a very specific purpose (to test dungeoncrawling fundamentals), and suddenly became a general design trend for high level adventures, which is wrong. Very few adventures engage high level gaming on its own terms, and most of those came out before 1985. There is a strong exception that I will review soon and that I have actually played.

        However valid such concerns might be, I believe their effects are too long term and esoteric to use as strong criteria for the quality of any single module in particular. ‘Halls of the Blood King’ for example, is not a bad module because of its ridiculous scale, which can be fixed with almost no fidelity, but rather the heavy-handedness and contrivance of its faction-play, which give you very little to work with and requires a major overhaul. I don’t think having a devil show up in an edition of DnD that has traditionally eschewed devils altogether (until the Immortals boxed set reintroduced them as immortals of the sphere of enthropy) is going to be inflicting huge violence to the fidelity of the overall framework.

        But yeah, insisting that people adhere to the established power hierarchies would probably be a way for dreamy visionaries to explore the higher reaches of adventure.

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      3. @Prince

        The more I think about it the more I’m convinced it was LotFP that first sent the OSR off the rails, with it’s campaign altering low level adventures and intense difficulty that creates a sense of “if a character lives past level 6 you’re not DMing right!”

        Look forward to seeing which higher level adventure you’re talking about!! Dream House, perhaps?

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      4. Lotfp as a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein for the failures of the NuSR has a satisfying face-validity, with its focus on low magic/unique magic, unique magic creatures, ultra deadliness and horror premise, but using it as a root cause is uncharitable.

        Imho the meme of ultra-deadliness of oldschool play comes from playing B/X derivates RAW and in an effort to contrast oneself with the dominant forms of DnD at the time, which were 4e and 5e, both of which possessed abundant methods for recovery. Using very powerful monsters is the easiest way to short-circuit the idea of ‘balanced combat’ from these editions, which is itself a corruption of the concept of Balance, which certainly did exist in AD&D 1e.

        Did it send the OSR off the rails? Yes and no. There is always a balance between innovators and conservatives in any artistic movement and the problems occurred because most of the ‘innovators’ during the Lotfp era ended up being people with relatively little knowledge of DnD and little motivation to learn. Patrick Stuart is probably the best example; Talented and creative but largely ignorant of D&D. Those works get picked up and influence other works in turn and before you know it the framework is lost.

        The fact that the OSR has suffered from divarication problems in rediscovering the old methods of play has led some to cynically conclude that the OSR and the classic mode of play are in fact entirely different but a casual comparison of modules then and modules now leads one to conclude that despite efforts from the usual suspects, efforts at continuation enjoy popular support and games that grow too divergent from the strain of core D&D either spin off their own fanbase or fade.

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      5. Certainly the 3E Challenge Rating System pushed a number of gamers back to B/X and AD&D, thus forming the beginnings of the OSR. 4E was introduced a few years after LotFP, I believe. But, it was the questionable success of LotFP, specifically Death Frost Doom, that most cast a baleful influence over its future direction.

        I get that true old school D&D never entirely left the scene. I’d love to see a list of your top 10 GOOD adventures for an average level of 7+ (5-7 no, 6-8 ok), though, written after the debut of LotFP. I think you’ll be hard pressed to fulfill that request.

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      6. It would be hard but it would be hard in either direction. Death frost doom came out in 2012. I don’t know if I’ve even reviewed 10 adventures post-2012 for 7th level and above. I just checked and the answer is no.

        There are some pre-2012 high level modules for OSRIC that are now mostly forgotten (Bone Hilt, Realms of Arkonus etc.). Today you see quite a few for OD&D derivatives (though I don’t trust Frog God Games), You have Anthony Huso pretty much pulling the train himself for OSRIC, There’s a few ASSH adventures that skirt into the zone, and almost nothing for B/X derivatives (Dreams of Ruin, or Cacoshox by UDG) with the exception of ACKS, which again tips into the zone.

        I think the problem is the system moreso then the baleful effect of single modules. B.X’s sweet spot is somewhere in the mid range (4-6) while AD&D hits its stride at the glorious 7-12 band, meaning high level adventures are more likely. B/X becomes kind of wonky at level 7+.

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