[Review] The Beholder #5 (OD&D): Routine

A short note from the management while we get under way: Another short review while NAP 2 is ongoing. I have a cover, I have figured out how to splice together everything. I’ll probably want to throw up about 5 short notes in between the adventures and then it’s off to the boutiques of Itch.io or Drivethru. Issue 5 features the last column by the dreaded John Morris, after which the entire Viewpoint series was thankfully excised, burned and damnatio immemoriamed, to be replaced with more gameable fare. Also probably the last issue before the DMG came out (August 79′?). Interesting to see a lot of trends pop up that would become ruinously manifest in the 2e era. Let’s dig in!

Listen, we all know this guy. We have all played D&D [1] with this guy and it fucking sucked. He never got the social contract, his campaigns were tedious, controlling exercises in pedantry and he had all the fucking imagination of a corporate accountant. There is no single John Norris, merely a series of instantiations of a malignant force of seething resentment, words between quotation marks and midwittery, eternally reincarnated. What was once a man is now the userbase of an entire social media platform. I really don’t have to cover this article because you already know what it will contain, but for the morbidly curious:

The Way of Anubis covers a specialist cleric, with the stunningly innovative idea that this particular cult is not merely against the undead (whom they turn at double their level) but also against more ‘natural’ forms of preserving life, with anything from raising the dead to casting healing magic provoking their ire. It is not so much the concept as the aggressive pedantry with which it is delivered that renders the whole almost unreadable. The use of special spells for this group is superficially engaging, and were we not burdened by more then a decade of 2e, we would be interested in exploring this easy and engaging road, but we have seen the sulferous maw into which it leads. To his credit Norris does point out that this class is likely more suitable for NPC henchmen, when the annoying restrictions actually provide some sort of trade-off or challenge.

I think it is telling that of the 10 or so articles this particular incarnation of John Norris wrote in various magazines (including early White Dwarf) none of them involve adventures or other gameable materials and all are either reviews or theory crafting bullshit.

Monster Summoning. Consistently strong entries, reminiscent of the monsters in early White Dwarf. Someone needs to make a dungeon filled with half of these weirdo monsters. Wood Golems resulting from a druid casting Transmute metal to wood on an Iron Golem. Two-dimensional Giants. Giant animated cacti. Corpse-eating death grubs. Time-travelling rats. Octopoid mind flayer pets. This thing.

This! AN INTERESTING CONCEPT OR ABILITY. Then you make a monster. Perhaps less suitable for high arts, but for a fucking weekly dungeoncrawl, HELL YES. I do wish to gripe about the removal of the MV or monster level score, which made it easy to gauge the strength of the monster at a quick glance and place it on the appropriate monster level. Overal a very good batch with no real stinkers, although the Micro-Sphinx and its ability to roar 5/day and stun a target for 5 rounds if it fails to roll under dex can be quite formidable.

Monster Reaction Tables. Expanded monster reaction tables. More complex then Basic or even AD&D! Including modifiers for everything from matched alignment to the value of a bribe and including percentile chances to attack or offer advice might be appealing to some but in my experience the Reaction Roll rules are about as complex as they need to be.

The Dragon Race. I guess this is where the rot started to set in. To the article’s credit, selecting Dragon as a race is a rather Extreme choice that introduces a lot of limitations and drawbacks, although a cursory examination will show that these are assuredly worth it. The dragon gains unlimited progression in either fighter or Magic User. In exchange for the ability to use shields, weapons and armor, the dragon gets a healthy, albeit static Natural AC, multiple attacks and a breath weapon which they can use more as they increase in levels. The fighter dragon’s bite attack increases in damage potential as it levels. Aura or detection powers are not gained. Making this a playable race, despite some hefty ability score requirements, is sheer folly, but perhaps allowing a single Dragon PC or henchman to be discovered (or indeed, subdued) somewhere in a remote location in your campaign world would be doable? The balancing mechanism of -20% or even -40% xp for Dragon MU is a clever introduction. I am not a fan, but this could have been done almost infinetely worse.

More Gem Tables. Expanded tables for gemstones and gemstone-related accessories. Could have had a function in OD&D, now rendered obsolete by AD&D 1e.

Computer Program. Computer program to randomly generate characters? What is this, Kobol?

Legend of Leshy
Mike Stoner & Guy J Duke

Lvl 1 – 4

An adventure that follows in the vein of The Villa of Menopolis and explicitly deviates from the tournament format. As an attempt at a more mythological or folkloric D&D it might be of academic interest but the problems with the earlier module are herein only magnified, and the format is dreadful. My glee upon seeing the initial map soon dissipated.

It’s trying to do something new which I love. The hook is very vague, almost folkloric. The characters are looking to free the half-mortal wife of the Slavonic Deity Leshy [2] from bondage. Your quest has led you…somehow, to a farmstead in the purview of the Ivanovich family and your party is invited to stay the night in the barn. From thereon out it gets funky.

The beginning is good. You are first warned off from entering the yard after 11.00 pm by the owner and to beware of strange meetings. You are contacted by some sort of spirit living in the barn, who knows of your quest, and demands you bring it a lock of hair from the youngest child and a log from the fire to the barn. Then you also encounter the spirit of the hearth, who will defend himself, and to top it off the youngest child actually sneaks off in the middle of the night so properly getting the lock of hair is very difficult. The organization is very unclear. You are supposed to be following a dark figure but it is only revealed that this is Olga elsewhere.

The adventure hasn’t quite got its format down. You get a hexmap but it is really a branching path of linear encounters. Random encounters are all fairly dull and bare bones. The scripted encounters are actually mythical but as a result it falls into the Sierra adventure game style writing where it feels like I am either playing a systemless RPG where a bad choice (such as following the path with the arrow marked ‘Death’) will kill me without a saving throw OR we are subjected to hazards in a manner that feels almost like a Skill Challenge [3] in order to get over a nonsensical (but folkloric) challenge like a giant bridge. The folkloric part of it is great. Dissapearing women, nymphs by moonlight, taking hints from three Sprites about a magic acorn that holds his hair etc. etc. But as a game its kind of rough.

There’s a cave, basically a dungeon, and it reminds me of Just Another Stupid Dungeon because of its theming around several elements and because it is also too small and it sucks a little. Still, there are some interesting elements here, with a statue that must be rotated so you can open doors so you can find a key so you can open a door, and some of the challenges, like the Room of Fire, are actually solved with intelligence instead of hammering them down. It’s just annoying that the adventure is so linear when it could have been made more open-ended. Some of the monsters too, like Ixtachil or a Whirler, kind of clash with the otherwise folkloric approach. The ending is fucking great, with the woman appearing and being rescued from immortal bondage, then granting all of the PCs a wish to top it off, which is also great.

Someone once said that if you want to write great books you shouldn’t try to copy great authors, you should dive into the eccentric weirdos and hacks that try out new stuff and then do what they do but better. Arguably a similar addage applies here. This has clear potential, the beginning is a nice open-ended folkloric burglary adventure (potentially destroying the farm btw), but all this experimentation does exact a toll. Polished up this would be pretty good. As is, even if you overlook the long ass paragraphs and problems with organization, some of the craft has been left behind and all the railroading is really a shame. Maybe some people will love it.

Promising, the folklore stuff is awesome but it is not quite there. **

New Spells. Pretty good spells. I have read the entire Tome of Magic recently, and I subjected some of my readers on the Discord to the worst in inane bullshit spells, so it is interesting to see sort of humble entries that one might actually pick. Illusionist spells are one of the most difficult because of the versatility of Phantasmal Force. As such Mirage, which combines illusion with enchantment, is redundant, but the Premonition spell allowing the illusionist to inflict a premonition of death upon a single target, causing it to flee, is a cute additio, and would later be canonized as Spook in UA. Detect Sound as a sort of super hearing for wizards is not too shabby either, nor is Cure Paralysis, which may be reversed (although I am weary of allowing too much healing into the wizard domain). Living Vine for the druid allows one to animate a single vine and have it perform a variety of functions. Death Bomb is a 4th level wizard spell with an indefenite duration that allows the wizard to explode as a fireball, leaving the body intact, upon one’s death and is probably too vicious, with campaign altering ramifications if introduced. Far more interesting is the 2nd level spell Reverse, which allows one to reverse enchantments as per dispel magic chances. Tricks only but the wording implies it may be used both on spells being cast and active enchantments. The last spell, probability travel, is 3rd level and grants advantage on all saving throws, attack rolls etc. etc and with a range of touch and a duration of 4 rounds/level, is about on par with haste, given the lack of a drawback but only a single target.

Thoughts on NPCs. One page article on the use of NPCs. The addage to make ressurection and cure disease available but prohibitively expensive, and to make some spells entirely unavailable does ring true, as does the tip to only fully stat out NPC henchmen. This is something that will seem like second nature to intermediary GMs but at the time, wholesome advice is not going to kill anyone.

I feel we are still not quite at our final form yet.

[1] Exempting Patrick Stuart
[2] Any questions r.e. the historicity of these claims may be directed at David Maynard, but please don’t pester the man, he has good adventures to write
[3] This is a politically correct way of implying that it sucks dicks

17 thoughts on “[Review] The Beholder #5 (OD&D): Routine

  1. 1. I am totally on board with the idea that the Cleric as a *class* was a mistake in AD&D. Clerics are not adventurers. You can partition Priests to a pin’s width but what has that to do with adventuring.

    Primary division — F — MU
    Refined Division — F — MU -A

    Because only the assassin (thief+) can stand with the other two classes.

    What about priests? Adventuring Priests are a kind of MU, and MU in a real campaign won’t look anything like the AD&D general class but be derived from them.

    2. As described, the adventure has me alarmed as a player. Unlike most AD&D modules I can’t anticipate what will happen. That is good. I have found before that the *less* the average DM has studied the best of modules the more surprising his game will be. I wonder what an experienced but mad DM might come up with. Certainly I will be nervous beyond dice results.


    1. I certainly ran that adventure back in the 80s and remember having a good time with it, but I do recall un-railroading it a bit. None of my players were ever capable of following a supposed railroad so I always had to make alternatives..


  2. Currently reading this from the beer desert that is the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. Found a “brewery;” it is terrible. The music, the ambiance, the patrons, the guy who poured my beer (took me 20 minutes of walking just to find A place to water my palate).

    All bad; I will not be back. I find it almost as obnoxious as folks who decry the presence of clerics in D&D.


  3. Kent Recommendation s

    1. Silmarillion – 2022 – this Tolkien illustrated edition is excellent even for €100. I love good editions that I can afford and I am very careful. Go for this edition. This is the only deluxe I have recommended.
    2. The Last Boy Scout – 1991. This film is fucking brilliant.


  4. The dudes really took their time researching Slavic myth.

    The Leshy is usually imagined as solitary (if not unique), but some legends do mention a Leshachikha (Leshy’s Hotwife). I recongnize the Domovoy and probably the Bannik? Yes, it’s a mess but probably a hot one, gotta check it out.

    And all of this was done in the Dark Ages when you actually had to haul your ass to the library, read up on unfamiliar stuff, take notes, and then hammer it up on a typewriter (instead of sitting on Wikipedia for 5 mins). Kudos to those two guys for actually trying.

    As a historical artifact, this is damn priceless.


  5. I just finished a review of Gygax’s D3, and my opinion hasn’t changed from 10 years ago. I am taking D3 as an example of a classic AD&D module, but my crucial observation is general across all adventures written even now for AD&D.

    The density of Gygax’s game management is peerless, by which I mean The Approach to the adventure in terms of physical context, resources, planning, privation and constraints. He is concise, there is no fat, his introduction is essential and complete . He seamlessly integrates new rules casually in situ, which you may take or leave elsewhere but will use here. Gygax’s way of describing fantastic locations is visceral and effective, useful, not vague and dreamy, visual not merely verbal. His monsters are definitive of AD&D in that they are its structure, his new creatures are refinements of AD&D’s hierarchy of power. How do my level and experience and character translate into power in the gameworld? The Drow disturb the level = power equation in a way that only PCs had done before.

    And yet … this module is 75% junk to me even if I have come to respect the remainder more in the last decade. Combat in AD&D is like Loudness in music for me. A Beethoven symphony in the right hands will in its climaxes sound louder than that small venue rock concert you went to where some moron turned the volume up to 13 and you thought your friends were whispering for a week after. What I mean is there is a difference between dynamics and loudness. Led Zeppelin may prepare the ground with some mystical folk before launching Plant into hysterics but what *I* don’t want is the neanderthal one-volume rage of a shit metal band for 80 minutes. That is what you get with Gygax’s D3. **Everywhere is Combat.** I have no interest in stats but if you removed them from D3 you would be left with tedious descriptions of combat zones, excepting my first paragraph. At every stage in D3 you realise Gygax expects the party to fuck these bastards up.

    The green cloaks and badges are weak attempts at hinting there are ways to bypass meatgrinding combat. This might explain Gygax’s failure as a novelist given he had a first rate imagination. Gygax is meticulous in providing instruction in how he thinks the game should be played, and so if he is silent when it comes to Diplomacy, Intimidation, Manipulation, Persuasion, Befooling, Trickery, Deception, Conversation, Threatening, Overawing, which are more difficult to leave in the hands of a regular DM than Combat, it is because he could not think how to formalise the handling of these things broadly for far flung DMs. And he was right. But he would have been better creating canonical modules which stuck to his excellent Approach 25%, and pushed Combat to an appendix, but tried to illustrate how AD&D operates outside of combat but within power.


    1. This is great. Yes! D3, which is brilliant and has not been imitated, fails in the sense that it does not explicitly state or support the primary means through which you must conquer it. Actually fighting your way through it is obviously madness, as the encounter in the tower illustrates, but the proper method must be inferred and is not explicitly stated. Genius.


      1. I think the notes for the tower are key here: fighting the entire populace, or indeed trying to wipe out a noble house, is suicide. Subterfuge and information gathering are the order of the day. But D3 is so gloriously open, one of the party’s tasks is to figure out what their objective ought to be. I think the lists of levels and items do have a purpose: they indicate the relative might of the house. There is still likely to be combat, as there are some dangerous creatures in the back alleys and it is open season on humans, but it is more a case of defeating your foes and taking to your heels before a patrol arrives.
        A module that took the idea of a mission in a deadly enemy city a bit further (but with a clear objective, although working out how to achieve that objective is another matter) was WGR6 City of Skulls. This uses a Notoriety mechanic: you gain points for who you are e.g. elves are suspicious characters, but even more so for your actions e.g. slaughtering prison guards, leaving an obvious trail of corpses. Hit squads of increasing power hunt down the notorious.


    2. TLDR — Gygax in D3 lays the ground for an extraordinary high level dungeon environment for AD&D. But he leaves it at that, just locations and monsters, so by default this is a meat grinder. Non-violent interaction between PCs and NPCs and Events are more interesting to good players than monster stats and abilities.


      1. Village of Hommlet is effectively the same way except for low levels. The intent is clearly that it’s all about intrigue and gathering info and making alliances and figuring out who is trustworthy and who is trying to use you for their own ends, but the module itself covers almost none of that, instead just giving everybody’s combat stats and how much treasure they have and where it is hidden, suggesting that the way you’re expected to play the adventure is to go door to door robbing and killing everybody. We know that’s not the case, but only because we’re able to read between the lines, and also have anecdotal accounts from early players that the games weren’t run that way.

        I can only assume Gygax in this era was either at least partially still of the mind that DMs should make most stuff up themselves and it wasn’t the place of a module to cover all the intrigue and non-violent options, that once a DM was given a map and a bunch of combat stats they would understand that all the rest should emerge naturally in play, or just didn’t know how to convey that kind of stuff in writing and so chose to punt on it and stick to what he was most comfortable with – maps, combat stats, treasure lists, and descriptions of physical spaces.

        Alas, because of that, inexperienced DMs ran them as meat-grinders and experienced ones groused in fanzines about them being meat-grinders, and it wasn’t until ~20 years later when people revisited this stuff and realized there was supposed to be more to them than that (and even then there’s still naysayers who insist we’re factionalizing the past by claiming it was ever supposed to be about anything other than meat-grinding).


      2. I too suspect Gygax was wary of providing a higher *dynamic* layer over what he presented, the *static* ground layer. [In the DMG convincingly anticipates and rejects other rules for handling abstractions which later came to pass in other RPGs]. He may have feared that in describing the moving parts of the environment – what are all these NPCs doing? – it would constrain the actions of the players into a narrative.

        However, this isn’t at all inevitable, as any DM who creates their own material knows. Allowing players to find out what is going on around them, in the way of Events, deepens their vision, and gives them access to the DM’s imagination which is the field within which they have to play. It is all very well to say, ‘here is a static environment, you can attempt do absolutely anything.’ This is more likely to lead to paralysis followed by cracking of heads than rich interplay with the inhabitants.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s