[Review] The Beholder Contracts (AD&D); Railway to Heaven

[Adventure]
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.

*****


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19 thoughts on “[Review] The Beholder Contracts (AD&D); Railway to Heaven

  1. “he 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”

    “a cursed half-undead by night and utterly evil by the magic of Tiresias”

    There’s your solution, the mere presence of the wizard reverts him to his evil undead persona, subservient to his better.

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  2. I have a vague memory of having seen this before. Was it published in a UK magazine or fanzine? Your review suggests that it does itself justice and perhaps with a bit of honing and modern layout and art it could be a good seller.

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    1. Prince mentions the source of the adventure at the beginning of the review. “A re-formatted edition of the adventure from the obscure Fantasy Chronicles magazine #3.” Is that where you might have seen it?

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      1. I see from rpggeek that the magazine was Irish. It’s possible that I saw this in 1986/7 as one of my pals was from a large Irish-Scots family (12 kids, he was 2nd youngest) and it was one of his big brothers who introduced him to AD&D.

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  3. Is this the Kent Rosetta Stone? It looks like this obscure little magazine adventure from 1986 exemplifies everything that he’s spent the last dozen+ years condemning everyone else for not doing – eschewing standard tropes and elements, hinting at an alternate/customized magic system, being focused on the machinations of powerful NPC wizards in comparison to whom the PCs are mere pawns, scope and tone that feels more literary than wargamey, etc.

    It raises the question of whether those preferences were already established and this adventure just happens to be the only published example that corresponds to them, or if those preferences developed because he read/played this thing at an impressionable age and it stuck with him ever since.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is perceptive. I was thinking the same thing after reading it a few days ago knowing that PoN was reviewing it. I decided that it has made a strong impression, perhaps stronger in retrospect than at the time, the way favoured memories grow more significant. Influence is a slippery concept because one might select out something more by affinity than for imitation, and I was younger than the author of tBC and I think did not remember tBC for years after I played it.

      Also I would say David Whiteland is showing how easy it is to go your own way, “don’t imitate me, isn’t it simple to strike out on your own path?”

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  4. Nice to see this one get a wider look. I’m the fellow who revised it for publication and put it up on DriveThru, in full collaboration with the original author (DWK Games is short for “David Whiteland and Keith”, so this will be the only release of the “company”). I should probably write about it over on Simulacrum if only to bring more attention to it, but as the work was 90% David’s I’ve always felt a bit strange bringing it up on my own blog.

    This adventure originally was brought to light by Kent, who suggested it to Bryce over at tenfootpole. Bryce praised it in his review (https://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?p=4295), and offhand suggested that it should be cleaned up from its original ultra-cramped White Dwarfesque layout, which was quite awful and definitely hindered usage at the table. I thought the idea a fun one and tracked down David Whiteland, who has a website and a small page on the adventure:
    https://www.beholder.uk/scrapbook/beholder-contracts

    He was happy to allow me to polish it up however I wanted, with the caveat that the adventure be free. I decided to keep to how he had done things for the most part rather than write much new material that would impose my views on it, and so just reformatted it, trimmed some of the most world-specific stuff so as to make it better suited to a generic DM’s table, and added detail on anything that confused me after consulting with David for how it was meant to work. For example, the bits at the end about what happens if you show up at Tiresias’ lair with Pholas or the Lute of Ages (which the wizard never expected you to find) are all new. The original was 4-column and 6.5 pages; even with a few trims it’s gone up to 16 pages: bigger font, two-column, and his original art 10 times the size so you can actually understand the maps. I added new subsections to better break up the text, offset others in callout boxes (like backstory bits), added bits of select bolding, and moved some of the material around to make it easier for a DM to consult while running a game. There’s also a new intro/summary section that walks you through the adventure structure. I’m pretty happy with it still: the only thing I feel I forgot was giving Maxamullion a GP total for his purse in case the players just decide to say to hell with the adventure, rob or shank and loot him, and go on their way.

    As I mentioned at tenfootpole, while the monetary award has been increased in places (David said it took his players several years to reach level 3 back when he was running games in the 80s, so he was never a rapid-advance DM, and the available wealth shows this), it’s still a bit stingy, but I didn’t want to fundamentally change the adventure. David was a pleasure to work with, and I was grateful to be able to polish this one up for a new generation of DMs.

    Anyways, the adventure is free, so go and grab it if you want:
    https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/251864/The-Beholder-Contracts

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  5. Very good review, you weren’t alarmed or confused and you have covered every aspect. And I mean that sincerely because this is an adventure from an obscure sept 1986 Irish rpg magazine. It does make me wonder are there intriguing strange european magazine adventures out there from the 1980s.

    However I disagree that the adventure is linear even with only four locations. And I completely disagree that it is a railroad.

    It is not linear because I think it is very hard to predict if the players will go from Thunderhead Peak straight to The Shifting Mires, or become intrigued enough to get the full story by going to The Grey Vale. Frankly, I think Alcor the Lightning Wizard is a nudging factor here and may influence the party depending on how resentful he feels towards Teresias after their naive bursting into his pretty chill abode. It is exactly the kind of adventure I love, when do the players realise they have been fucked over, even though they know fucking them over is my joy, and then … how do they fuck over the fuck-overer which provides universal delight.

    It is not a railroad. It is a short magazine adventure which tries to provide an instructive wilderness escapade while illustrating deviations from standard ad&d NPCs. If this adventure was placed in an existing campaign I would be surprised if the outcomes were at all similar. I could run this adventure six ways depending on how I play Alcor and six ways depending how I run Pholas. Teresias deserves to die, but other DMs might nudge him as a six-way hero.

    C1 – The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan – is not a railroad because it has a time limit.

    The wilderness map is hilarious until you realise how easy it is to locate the distances within your own campaign, have a look without worrying about the numbers.

    Weakness == The back story immediately after Pholas encounters Teresias and flees is unconvincing (it is only a paragraph), as is Pholas’s undead status. Pholus requires experienced ad&d DM thought to give him some grounding.

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    1. I wonder at the existence of euro-gamer magazines. Germany would seem to be the safest bet, but D&D was less strong here, with other tradgames like WHFRPG, RQ or World of Darkness gaining more extensive popularity. I do know there were some people who had played the German ADnD clone Das Schwarze Auge in their days, so who knows. I think language is a big barrier, and by the time translated versions would have hit the market the gaming culture that is the most rich would have moved on. I am not hopeful, but White Dwarf and now Beholder shows the Britt gaming scene was promising.

      Fair point r.e. the railroad. As written it is certainly possible the PCs screw up and gain the enmity of Alcor, in which case they never have a chance to find the Lyre at all. I misuse the term because it is a series of encounters, which must be passed sequentially, but you are correct that the Cemetary part is in effect optional, and the conclusion is by no means foregone.

      I had not considered the wilderness map as a shorthand for campaign placement, that is a good point.

      Backstory, I find that whenever unique magic comes into place many things can be handwaved. This is a strength as it is very flexible but it also makes it very difficult for the players to anticipate events intelligently, so it must be used sparingly. You are probably right that an experienced GM might do a better job at it.

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      1. I would love to see you integrate the BC into a game you had running or Melan or T. Foster. What do your players do in The Beholder Contracts? It would be a striking experiment. We all know players and gaming time is too valuable to run experiments

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      2. I’ll download and read it for sure, but the amount of actual play I’ve done in the past ~10 years has been so minimal (and most recently focused entirely on playtesting stuff intended for publication) that unless I totally fall in love with it it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever actually run it. But both Lichway and Halls of Tizun Thane have already been placed on my campaign map as potential side-quest palate cleanser breaks from the “main event” content so maybe some modified version of this will too.

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    1. Surprisingly (at least to me) the guy who did the “remastering” on this turns out to be the very same guy who’s been helping me try to pull my stuff into publishable shape (Keith Hann, who also wrote the “history of the OSR” series of blog posts). So at least in that regard I guess I’m in good company.

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  6. “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. ”

    This sounds like an adventure fit for Foxy the Elf.
    ; )

    I picked this up back in 2020…I believe I was hipped to it through a podcast like GrogTalk (one of the dudes is very much into old 3rd party publisher scenarios). Haven’t run it, but was most intrigued/impressed by the alternate world view it presented with its uniquely talented wizards.

    For me, I find the thing very Vancian…far more Vance than Clark Ashton given the SPECIFICITY (Smith’s sorcerers have personality and individual ambitions, but their skill sets feel much more generic). Regardless, good stuff. It inspires the creation of a system that encourages this kind of specificity or, at least, game procedures that facilitate it.

    In fact, when I acquired the adventure (in March) I began putting together notes for a B/X campaign with this concept as a central conceit. However, it never got off the ground and by November of 2020 I’d decided to go back to AD&D.

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  7. What did you think of the strange (brave) concept of specialised LOW LEVEL wizards. Can you fructify from the two examples to a beyond.

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    1. Assuming you’re asking me: yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.

      AD&D, however, uses a different paradigm. OD&D is amorphous enough (that is to say, “half-baked”) that you can extrapolate to something like the paradigm exhibited in BC…and, by extension, the B/X system (as the latter is just a cleaned up, streamlined version of OD&D + a very small selection of Supplement I). AD&D is quite codified, and tinkering with it is done at one’s own peril.

      From my point of view, magic-users in AD&D are far more like scientists, alchemists, and/or medieval philosophers…trying to ascertain occult knowledge to effect change on the natural world. The magic in Beholder Contracts is far more whimsical…rather than draw from a particular set of mystical “laws” of what is possible, each wizard (based on his/her specialization) is determining their own “reality” insofar as what is possible through the mystical arts. It is very much in the vein of literary sorcerers (especially Vance and his imitators…Piers Anthony, perhaps, to mention one of the more vulgar).

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