[No-Artpunk] #23 Keep the Pace

Keep the Pace
Justin Todd
Lvl 6
17 pages

The fever has abated somewhat and the conclusion of No Artpunkmas draws near. Justin Todd, anointed author of previous years top 8 Vault of the Warlord, returns trying to breathe life into yet another thing long thought dead, the tournament module!

The gold standard for tournament modules as far as I am concerned is none other then C1 Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan so occasional comparisons are unavoidable. The other one that comes to mind is Kelvin Green’s Strict Time Records must be kept. We also have Fez I for those who are interested in an early 3PP tournament module. This module opens with a list of effusive praise from the listed players, which is charming but at the same time comes across as cheeky. Lets see how well it holds up.

This module embraces its purpose as a game explicitly but it also abandons entirely any pretense of immersion or escapism, cosigning itself fully to an artificial, video-game like presentation. That’s probably not a good place to start. I think I elucidated my point before: If you are going to go full funhouse, you better be pitching straight fucking homeruns with every encounter because you sort of immediately abandon much of the advantages of DnD over video games. It states ‘some sort of framing device is required to explain how the characters appear in the dungeon’. Laaaazzzzzzy. It’s not cost-effective lazyness either, the effort to put something in there to set the mood is trivial compared to actually writing and then playtesting, which has clearly been done. Why deprive yourself of even the pretense of a set up or something to help the GM integrate the adventure into his game? Think of it as virtually effortless points.

That being said, the GM advice is all solid and practical. Sample:

Under absolutely no circumstances should the Judge lead the players to the final areas no matter how frustrated the players become – if they have moved quickly enough to have a chance to complete the dungeon in time, they will be far happier to solve the final puzzle legitimately rather than have it spoiled by an overfriendly Judge.

So, yeah. Hard. Antagonistic. Scrupulously fair…eeeeh.

So, the concept of the adventure is that it takes place in a dream, with 3 characters of a level of no more then 6, and it must be completed in 3.5 real time hours. A set of required abilities has been provided in case you use your own characters and not the pregens. The first MAJOR blunder is avoided with grace. It is a dream adventure, but treasure in the dream provides actual XP (the characters know this I take it?), additional rooms beyond the 10th provide additional xp and there are various penalties for dying beforehand. If a TPK occurs before the final fight, everyone loses 1000 XP. I am a little suprised given such an explicit tournament style that there is no explicit tournament scoring but I guess it is possible to just look at the XP gained and approximate from there. I feel the variant XP rules should be known to the PCs before they set out?

Timekeeping is…not quite there. Taomachan used a variant of 1:1 time and had damage take place in real time, probably one of the most effective ways of keeping the Pace that I have seen. Strict Time records kept pace per turn but had a lovely table of escalating drawbacks as the poison would start working. You had the sense of a ticking clock. It is not required, but it can be good to add reminders, signifiers or additional effects to sort of spur people on. Wandering monsters works…weird. They are explicitly summoned in (so no suprises), in ascending order from weakest to strongest, check every turn. There is a limit of 3 encounters, and then they stop until the party rests (which I guess can happen anywhere?) and then continues on. You start off with Ghouls (6th level Cleric should make mincemeat out of them) and you end with a Spectre (a 9+ turning possibility maaaybe but otherwise probably game over, the game notes it will make hit and run attacks as it is not intended for direct combat). A last note before we begin, there is a clear homage to Dark Souls in the form of rune-stone messages and bloodstains of previous players that got killed (the ones in the module are actually from the playtesters). I’m inclined to say no to this overtly mechanical shit, just telegraph your dangers organically or in weird dreamlike shapes but maybe zoomers are more favorably disposed?

Actual adventure proper is engaging at times, occasionally frustrating. About as screwbaggy as it needed to be, in some cases probably over the line. Making a transparent glass door with dim shapes in it, no handles, and then you smash it and you get coated with rot grubs, that’s a pretty neat trick. But then this.

Which has the right idea, only its a sloppy conversion of how rotgrubs work, it doesn’t specify how many there are, or that you should apply the fire in the same round etc. etc. Details. Get em correctly. I’ll probably have to consider if you can port monsters between rulesets and if so, under what circumstances.

Also this makes no sense geometrically with the above keying.

Got sidelined there. The point is, the general geometry of the map as a confusing and confounding place that must be navigated with strict discipline against a clock that is running down works. There is good use of secret doors that can mostly be discerned by mapping, only for the game to then throw a monkey wretch at you by making the floor with areas 21-30 have gaps in there. The power of magic keys is perhaps invoked a bit too often for my taste but it is a dream module.

What keep the Pace does, and does well, is to sustain a relentless pressure on the Players while also presenting them with opportunities to waste time. As a teaching tool I see some potential, possibly after the overly gamey elements have been given a much needed coat of paint. You walk down a stairway BAM there is a skeleton with a bow down a long hallway and in front of him and behind him are fucking concealed pit traps. YEEEAH. Or an entire level with nothing but locked doors. Or here’s 10 fucking stuck doors with ghouls and gold behind them. Like a dick! A series of glas doors with Wraiths clearly behind them. Behind a shelf of potions is a mural of a displacer beast. “Clever, but not quite right” before leaping from the wall. It has a visceral tempo to it that you can kind of infer from the way its all written up.

The minimalist description would earn scorn in most other settings but in this case going for something that contains the essentials is probably helpful as both the GM and the PCs are expected to operate as swiftly as possible to adhere to the time limit. This is the most complex room.

And this is actually very good. Various menaces all guarding valuables. Telegraphing is…too much? I understand the idea of a shared exprience, I am not sure if its better. The potions are actually a concealed puzzle. I think no saving throw for the black potion is probably too deadly. As a 6th level cleric you might be able to get off your Neutralize Poison spell but even then there’s fucking 3 pairs of Wolfspiders in this adventure.

Puzzles are simple enough only with the murderous 3.5 hour pace where every second counts they might not be. There is a certain elegance to them.

Let’s see, something uncharitable. The adventure uses cursed items and foreshadows them properly, incurring no disrespect from me. Traps are more or less omitted or consigned to pit traps and the odd Rot grub door, the adventure clearly preferring to use monsters that attack from ambush and are…mostly given subtle clues. I think this is probably a little weak, especially in combination with the use of a haul of treasure chests but it doesn’t break the adventure. There’s one exception, a statue that fires a laser from its eyes if you steal the gems placed before it, which is alright.

There’s a handful of magical effects, one of which is essentially the augmentation of one’s shadow (carries on in the regular game), the other a pool that alternatively raises or lowers a random stat (also carries on in the regular game) this is all above board stuff and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

What else? The Premades don’t have names. I get wanting to focus on the essentials, but no names? You have equipped the dwarf with an enchanted skull that gives bad advice (probably a minor violation of the NAP ban in combination with the shadow thing but whatever) but you can’t give it a name? It’s fine, this is a gripe.

A bossfight against a white dragon in a room half filled with freezing water is probably one of the most subtly atmospheric set pieces I have seen in a while, even if it makes no sense, but its a dream. The decision to give everyone an extra reward if they make it and to forego the TPK penalty if they die on the boss is sensible, given their odds of succes. Although clever recoinnaisance and use of invisibility might provide a much needed edge, there is always the possibility that the dragon wins initiative and delivers 28 cockgargling cold damage to 1-2 characters.

I’m unsure what the use is of all the AI generated pictures, which represent paintings in the dreamworld. They are vestigial, which seems like a missed opportunity. Given the dearth of art it feels slightly off. Is that the idea? To deliberately waste your time?

I’m not a fan of the uneccessarily artificial nature of the module and it comes across as stark at times, some of the decisions are dubious (a Rust monster bashes through a wooden door?) but within those constraints the core of the adventure seems to be satisfyingly frenetic, the room descriptions are short enough and the whole is put together in a way that it would be probably fun to play. I feel like I am reviewing the larval stage of what could become a very strong entry. Probably grogs will be turned off by the video game shit? It should be made very clear which conditions the PCs are and are not aware of when they begin the adventure. This will dramatically influence their performance. Probably the decisive factor is if you put people through this are you actually testing their DnD skill, or something else? At the end of the day, it does combine complex tactical challenges, timekeeping, abstract puzzle solving, resource management and mapping in a way that is quintessentially DnD. It ain’t no C1, but you can definetely run this and have a good time.

10 thoughts on “[No-Artpunk] #23 Keep the Pace

  1. No complaints, good review. All the minor technical stuff was fixed since this was submitted but the module is still very contrived. I scrapped multiple projects I had considered entering & then created this a week before the deadline, which included 3 playtests. That motivated me towards something stark. The module _did_ appear to test one’s D&D skills, as the playtesters noted the most experienced players blitzed through while others struggled with the basics.

    Misc notes:
    – The text around Area 8 is an error. Fixed in latest.
    – The Cleric’s Periapt vs. Poison should also grant a Save albeit a difficult one against even the worst poisons. Fixed in latest.
    – AI Art is meaningless nonsense (it also doesn’t mean anything in-game either)
    – The rust monster is on the floor with all metal doors
    – “It should be made very clear which conditions the PCs are and are not aware of when they begin the adventure.” good call, I will make updates / double check on this


  2. Probably I should know this, but what is “WB: FMAG?”

    Huh. A dream adventure. With no consequences for failure. But that gives everyone x.p. for dream encounters overcome.

    So…reward with no risk? Um. Is that really D&D?

    Unless I’m missing something, this is some pretty low stakes bullshit. I mean, the LOWEST of stakes. As in, the worst thing that’ll happen is you waste 3.5 hours of your (real world) time. That’s not staking much.

    Not my cup of tea. Sorry.

    [and before anyone steps up and says “yeah, but it’s a TOURNAMENT adventure…with pre-gens!…those don’t ‘mean anything,’ either! What the hell’s the difference between something like this and Tamoachan or Dwellers of the Forbidden City or one of the Slavers modules? What’s the difference between this and any other one0ff adventure?”

    I’ll tell you: those one-off tourney modules can still be adapted to one’s own regular home campaign game. They can still be used WITH CONSEQUENCES to entertain your players and enjoy yourself a wholesome game of D&D. I’ve used I1, C1, and A1 as inserts into regular campaigns. Heck, the G-series was originally written for a tournament. And, if used, those adventures have real risk and real reward for the players.

    ‘Dream adventure?’ Nope. Not buying. I quit playing World of Darkness circa 1998]


    1. I’ve run “dream” adventures – I ran both Rob Kuntz’s Garden of the Plantmaster and RuneQuest’s The Cradle that way, and if I were ever to run Ravenloft would probably do so with it as well – but it’s always understood that if you die in the dream you’re actually dead. If this adventure doesn’t do that and has positive consequences (XP awards) carry over to the real/waking world but not negative ones, that is a problem (but also easy enough to fix if the adventure seems otherwise worth running).


      1. Trent:

        You are, of course, right. I’m just in a salty mood because the air quality index in my hometown is over 200 for the third straight day and we haven’t had any rain in weeks. It like living in fucking Mordor ’round here.
        : (


      2. Total failure is -1000 XP, compared against a positive reward of 4000 XP and some other bonuses. Players can also inflict negative attribute changes on themselves (and one group did.) It would be very easy to change any consequences or put death on the table. However, I did not put in reduced consequences willy nilly: the use case was giving my players access to dream “bodies” not their own, and I didn’t want them to be too overcautious given the unusual nature of the scenario. The hope for the module was to teach my players not to get hung up on analysis paralysis and to move a bit faster, ignoring anything that don’t seem worthwhile. Keep the pace, as it were. I don’t think I’d ever write another module anything like this one, although my players were clamoring for more.


      3. Mm. I understand wanting to discourage “over cautious” behavior and avoid “analysis paralysis;” no DM relishes such behavior. But the general tactic is to increase pressure to prevent dithering, NOT lowering stakes so that failure holds no sting (i.e. ‘be bold…it’s just a dream anyway!’). See what I mean?

        Your -1000 vs. 4000+ x.p. doesn’t endear the adventure to me. You’re modifying the basic foundation of the system to suit your taste which is…well, kind of the antithesis of the contest? Sorry, that’s not really how D&D works. You succeed, you gain points…you fail, you get nothing and/or your PC gets eliminated. Why circumvent standard expectations of play? What? D&D’s not good enough for you?


        All that probably sounds harsh. I’m sorry for giving offense. Sounds like your players enjoy your game. I’m glad and happy for you and for them. Disappointed players would be really sucky. No DM wants that.

        As I said:, this style of game isn’t my cup of tea. I play (and run) a different style of D&D.


    1. Reminds me of how a buttnaked ranger killed Lokaugh Visnakh, the chosen of Tsathogguah, with a single poisoned arrow in my Wilderlands campaign. The antipaladin did get a saving throw, but he failed miserably. He did behead the party’s elven druid with a vorpal sword and incapacitated the fighter in his last two rounds, so it didn’t feel anti-climactic, but it was nevertheless ridiculous.

      Liked by 1 person

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