The Beholder Contracts (1986) – Reprint 2018
David Whiteland (DWK Games)
Lvl 1 – 3
A recommendation by the Kent. A re-formatted edition of the adventure from the obscure Fantasy Chronicles magazine #3. Is it pretentious litwankery? Or is it the greatest thing since sliced bread? Yes.
Published well into the bronze age of AD&D, The Beholder Contracts presents a singular fantastic vision. Disdainful of the common tropes and assumptions of Gygaxian D&D, it instead delves deep into its fantastic substrate, chasing that opioid dream, the unique campaign, the game that is like a fantastic story. Only this time the dream is real.
We get a few railroads here at Age of Dusk and most of the time I am contemptuous of them. Yes it’s a common format in 5e. Yes it has been popular since the Dragonlance days. Yes most of them will always be bad. Why?
Think about what engages players, what makes them the most active. Meaningful decisions. Be they tactical, roleplay-ery or strategic, players are most compelled when they have a stake in something and are able to affect the outcome. Think of all that adventure design crap we talk about. What is it for? It is to generate those meaningful decisions. A good dungeon is like a mesh of meaningful decisions, you are embedded in it. Where do I go? Do I listen at this door? Did I carry enough equipment? Do I use my wand, where do I stand, do we leave this treasure here for now so we move faster etc. etc. What does a railroad do? Collapse all that decision-making into a set of individual encounters that are passed through more or less sequentially. It doesn’t have to be bad, but you had better write like you know what you are doing.
So how do you make it good? You don’t do complex dungeons or a wide open map. You have a set of encounters that for all intents and purposes are to be followed through from A to Z. You make sure the ride is thrilling and engaging so the players are excited about what happens next and you make sure each encounter has sufficient complexity so the players have a point where their actions matter and don’t even notice they are not in control of where they go next. You are still running a game, but in addition, you take on the role of a magician, an illusionist, a beguiler and enchanter.
The Beholder Contracts is like that. It understands what it is and what it is doing. The language is not table-read minimalist description. This is meant to convey an atmosphere to the GM. The GM too has to be enchanted or else he cannot in turn enchant the audience.
The players are comissioned by Maxamullion, an eye-patch wearing fighting-man of uncertain alignment, on behalf of the Wizard Tiresias The All-Seeing Eye. They are to retrieve The Lute of Ages from Pholas the Troubadour, who supposedly snatched it. He is now a captive of Alcor the Lightning Wizard. In order that the characters can achieve his bidding they are granted The Five Treasures of Tiresias. In order to ensure the treasures are returned, at least one of them is to sign the terrible Beholder Contract, which will unleash a shape-changing and immortal demon assassasin upon anyone who does not return the items to him in 28 days. In reality, a subtle treachery is afoot. Tiresias has no interest in the Lute and is after something far stranger and darker, the vista at the top of Thunderhead Peak, extracted from the surgically removed eyes of the players.
The wizards in the Beholder Contracts are straight out of C.A. Smith’s Zothique or Vance’s the Dying Earth in particular Chuun the Inescapable; eccentric hermits transfigured by their wielding of unearthly power. Alcor is 6th level, but can call lightning, cast bolts, conjure sheets of lightning while he remains on Thunderhead Peak. Tiresias functions as an illusionist, but can pry, by his maddening gaze, the rare sights from the eyes of men, and place them in his crystal. Each wizard lives in their own stronghold, attended by weird and twisted servants and creatures, and possesses artifacts of terrible potency.
It is the idealistic ideal of the neophyte GM. I shall transcend all boundaries, and make a world of my own imagination, and here, in this moment, it works. The custom magic items, each lovingly handcrafted, the unique encounters, with eccentric NPCs. And it works because each is a puzzle peace, a cog in an intricate watchwork, and the pieces have room to breathe, a singular purpose, and are embedded in a substrate of the familiar.
The wilderness map is abstracted…but you have choices. What do you choose, do you take dangerous shortcuts or do you take safe ways. Remember, there is a ticking clock element to the Beholder Contracts that renders the choice more meaningful then it would at first appear. The decision to make use of the standard encounter tables in the DMG is understable but it does mean that a relatively large part of the adventure is going to be composed of them. Don’t blow your load on customizing everything, in particular because each terrain type has its own encounters, focus on a few phenomenal encounters, trust in the GM to figure out the parts in between without removing the factor that makes the choice meaningful.
The items in this adventure, by the way, are great. Less then a paragraph each, completely gameable, yet they are magical in a way that speaks to the imagination. A +4 bastard sword with a silvery sheen that glows when it is near fresh blood. A grotesque mask that allows you to breathe fire. A shield that allows the shadowy boor displayed on its cover to be summoned forth. These are devices far beyond the ken of characters of level 1-3 and their presence allows the party to cope with some of the more ferocious threats of the adventure, anything from groups of newt-like lizardmen to cave bears and storm giants. You also gain an impression of the power Tiresias the All-seeing must command. Some of the artifacts like the Lute of All Ages are described in fairly broad outlines, gameable outlines to be sure, as though Whiteland expected you to be able to figure it out and judge accordingly. Others like the Beholder Contracts proper are meticulously described, all eventualities covered.
What impresses me about The Beholder Contracts is that it is only 4 locations, each of which is visited in a more or less linear order (backtracking is possible but unlikely) but each location proper can unfold in wildly different ways. Thunderhead Peak, say, you are looking for the Manse of Alcor. The characters suspect Pholas is captured in the Wizard Alcor’s Belvedere (in fact, the sight in this place, enhanced by some magic of Thunderpeak, is the object of Tiresias), how do they go about it? Do they straight up ask him, and if he denies he ever visited, do they believe him, do they plan some treachery, do they use the power of their newfound item to simply fuck him up, risky though it might be? And for once, the text gives you enough guidelines to play this character and how he reponds to the PCs is all well covered. Consider something like this.
Alcor the Lightning Wizard is one of the Great Wizards because of his mastery of lightning. Thunderhead Peak is always under the shadow of storm-clouds from which Alcor draws his spectacular powers. He can control lightning from small sparks to huge forks, evoking all manner of forked, sheet or ball lightning.
Like Tiresias, Alcor has studied his craft for several lifespans. He is however quite youthful in appearance, with flowing dark hair and a clean-shaven face. He dresses smartly in deep blue robes embroidered with silver stars and sickle moons. Alcor is not unfriendly, but his isolation and devotion to his magic is easily misinterpreted as such.
If the players explain why they have come, Alcor will deny even having heard of Tiresias or a troubadour named Pholas and will insist that the belvedere is empty—all claims are true, and Alcor will be affronted if he is not believed. Otherwise, they are likely to attempt to get to the tower without consulting him: the wooden door can be broken with reasonable force. Clearly this is not the proper way to behave and Alcor will demand an explanation
And then two more paragraphs where Alcor will consult his texts and point characters in the right direction if they are in search of the Lute of Ages. A course of action to follow if Alcor dies is not explicitly covered but may be inferred by referring to his library as the place where the information is located.
Locations in The Beholder Contracts are RuneQuestian, the dungeon delving process is left aside and the places exist more as plausible wizard lairs, with a handful of interesting elements or hidden treasure. You would see this type of stuff in the pages of Dungeon as time went on. They are detailed enough so that if combat breaks out, the GM is not left with an abstract void in which to conduct the melee.
Then you visit the tombs, how do you proceed? Whiteland somehow leaves enough room in his 4 location adventure so it is possible to never find the Lute of Ages, you can meet Pholas the Troubadour, a cursed creature who is half-alive and Good by day, rejuvinated by the tunes of the Lute, and a cursed half-undead by night and utterly evil by the magic of Tiresias. Will you sojourn with this unstable monster? Do you just take his advice. Do you kill him and take the Lute? Once again, the scenario, this 4 section scenario, somehow is flexible enough (and during the confrontation with Tiresias things like the possible presence of the Troubadour are accounted for).
The last section, through the Shifting Mires, an enchanted place of palable malevolence, with at last, some dreaded railroading to prevent the PCs from reaching the place before the last day. In this case the subterfuge is carefully concealed by the enchanted nature of the sentient swamp and the illusion magic of Tiresias. PCs appear to travel closer to the location but it always remains just 1 day away. Mercifully, the stronger Swamp monsters are excised, replaced with giant leeches and shambling mounds. Mouths, swamp gas and other features appear to molest the party, reminding them of the evil nature of this place.
Tiresias: The wizard intends the party to make their way to the hall, where he will announce his presence. The wizard cuts a striking image in his scarlet robes and goathorned head-dress. He is very old indeed but, like many other magicians, his arcane studies have taken him well beyond the term of his natural life. He is gaunt and sinewy with an appropriate lack of vitality. In contrast, his piercing and mostly unblinking eyes are uncannily active
The adventure, which could theoretically be finished in as much as a single 8 hour session really builds up to the confrontation with Tiresias. It is quite likely the PCs understand that by now they have been ensnared in a web of treachery by their would be benefactor, but can they get out? The wizard intentionally delays opening his great gates until only an hour of the Contract is left. And you get a final encounter, a complicated plan of treachery, covering several eventualities (although here, some options, like Pholas being present, are very vague, and the author takes pains to point out having the wizard getting blasted by Pholas with the ambiguously powerful lute is no fun, but offers no concrete solution). And then there are subtle treacheries, like the Wizard having an almost invisible crystal dagger with a one-time poison, or awaiting their coming guarded by an invisibility spell. Or the Wizard’s Lizardman soldiers and two wizard slaves, the dregs of a wizard’s academy. Will there perhaps be some ruse to find and destroy the Contracts in the Wizard’s tower? Once again, allowing for multiple approaches will always be interesting.
There are definetely some problems. The adventure can be a bit vague, acceptable for some, irritating for others. The wizard’s hoard of enchanted items, protected by a deadly trap, is only hinted at and not defined. If the PCs manage to overcome Tiresias, they have aquired themselves quite the arsenal of magic items so further campaigning is going to be thrilling to say the least, and might require the outbreak of a Rust Monster plague if not accounted for.
There is powerful imagination on display in The Beholder Contracts, structured in a harmonious, attractive way. This is combined with a type of game that encourages trickery, perception, ruses and planning and brutally punishes blind obedience, staying true to the spirit of DnD. The adventure is simple enough that the lengthier descriptions should not prove a great hindrance, and the material, once absorbed, can be recalled easily because of the avoidance of clutter.
I think as a case study for a location-based railroad adventure that is not taking place in a dungeon, it stands heads and shoulders above its competitors, and arguably does so even to this day. I’m not sure it is complete and expansive enough to merit Immortal status but we must at least appreciate the finesse of the writing, the unconventional nature of the approach, the preservation of both good gameplay and the dignity of the players. I think if placed in some obscure 3rd party shrine of Stone Age D&D modules alongside the likes of Halls of Thizun Thane or Lichway, it would hold up well.
Not just a good but a great example of a linear adventure. Probably deserves to be mentioned more often whenever someone fucks it up. No just do it like this. Its got a few railroad tricks in there and they are not even offensive.