[Review] The Beholder #9; The Pagoda

This issue has a double feature, the self-proclaimed Quest Dungeon as the appetiser and the atmospheric Pagoda for the main course. Lets dive in!

Games Day V: A page long report on the event. The tables with electronic video games seemed to have attracted most of the attention, a dreadful premonition of things to come. Lots of descriptions of the events, but sadly, no micro-game reports.

The Quest Dungeon
Keith Andrews (1979)

Lvl 1

A linear single-session affair, good for an afternoon of play. As far as these things go it is STILL better then most of its siblings in Dungeon.

The patriarch Galba wants his staff retrieved and you have to get it. Fortunately, the mythic underworld in which it lies is but 2 miles away. Unfortunately he has sworn an oath never to leave the temple. 150 gp per character in rewards? Enter the PCs I guess…

The premise is a disaster but Keith must have looked at it, pulled up his jeans, rolled up his sleeves and went dungeon-writin because the end result is better then it has any right to be. Unique creatures, some archetypal defences like two statues facing eachother that will animate if you pass their line of sight, a glowing white figure that can create illusions and pretends to be omnipotent but has but 1 hp, then a living tunnel that drips digestive juices down on the players, a band of phantasmal soldiers, a door that is a mimic and at last, a Gargoyle, with a subtle hint that a knife found earlier will dispose of the creature with one blow. The trick with this adventure is that almost everything can be done in a smart way and a stupid way. You can bypass the mimic by feeding it, slide between the statues and the wall, figure out the soldiers are illusory (this one is particularly tricky, I think a stronger clue could have been provided), set fire to the webs etc. etc. There’s also an encounter with 3 Ghouls, which I suppose is best tackled by rolling an 11 on the Turn Undead check or alternatively getting cut down and eaten while paralyzed.

Treasure is very low, about 1000 gp in total, and a crystalline dagger +1 that will shatter if used on the Gargoyle and considering the potential deadliness of some of the encounters, this should be considered stingy. Still, if I were to encounter this for a session of dungeoneering I would perhaps purse my lips in dissaproval but I would not be horribly offended. There’s a way to do these semi-random quest holes that enables the mind to get into the rhytm and the variety of encounters should scratch just that itch.

A high **

Review: A glowing review of Starfleet Battles. Sounds gnarly. An intricate balance of different weapon types, maneuvering and shield allocation in the world of the Original Series. I will spare you the review of the review.

The Ideas Page: A player facing article about dungeoneering tactics and tricks that is good if somewhat scattershot. Discussions on the discord about fantasy adventure gaming have revealed that this sort of stuff might be perfect for newcomers to the OSR and in the current zines (most of them dreadful and far removed from actual play), these are not granted much attention. I like the proposed tactic of pouring oil onto statues that are expected to animate, which gives an edge during combat but will not damage the statue if it turns out to be valuable and inert. A benefit of Holy Water is given (you can fire into melee without fear of causing damage to your frontline). Other tactics like using Telekinesis to hurl swarms of arrows are met with less enthusiasm. At level 7 you should have plenty of strategies for these types of spells. The rest is all good. Acid as a possible (but volatile) piece of equipment for PCs, and a suggestion to have monsters use Burning Oil too if the players rely too much on it, which is excellent.

Mini Reviews: More reviews. Note creeping realism fetish for the now all but extinct Chivalry and Sorcery game.

Info: Highly scattershot page that begins with an add, then proposes a new rule for poison as damage over time until a saving throw is made and then ends with two magic items. The Rug of Welcome is an item used by monsters that will pacify and render susceptible to suggestion anyone stepping over it into the room for a number of rounds. The Bracers of Polymorph are about what you’d expect, with all the drawbacks and limitations of the Polymorph other spell. The temporary duration does mean that even if your friend has just morphed into a dragon and goes berserk he will at least go back to normal. Still enjoying the functional but very open-ended magic items of this era.

DM’s Corner: An article on the creation of living dungeons, in the mode of Gygax and Perlammo Salt Mines. If I was a junior GM I would love this article and tattoo it on my wrist. Only a page but it works. Broad strokes first. Generate the dungeon first THEN use INTELLIGENCE to alter it so that it becomes a place of habitation, consider its placement in terms of the surrounding area, consider who is in charge and what the effect of his removal would be, personalize the wandering monster table, add timed events (e.g. all the inhabitants are gathered in the central cave to hear a sermon or something) and a list of preparations the inhabitants of a dungeon will take against repeat forays (up and to including digging new tunnels!). Advice that would help many creators in the OSR today.

Also two new creatures: The Gobbleknoll is a living hill monster, related to a mimic, that will use its control weather ability to impersonate a cavern and then attempt to suffocate anyone trapped inside. Its heart, located deeper in the cavern, is its weakness. The flimsy defence around its heart should be shored up, but adding this to some weird wilderness area would probably be very cool. The Reaper skeleton is some sort of greater undead creature with a scythe with sharpness powers and a fear ability. Not bad but nothing special and it should really be replaced by the Minor Death if you are going to use it.

The Pagoda
Mike Stoner & Guy Duke

AD&D 1e
Lvl 3 – 4

An atmospherically very strong entry with an over-reliance on set-piece encounters. The Ctehks, a nomadic vampire-worshipping cannibal cult, have set up shop somewhere near the borders of civilization. Rumors of great treasure abound, carrion stench everywhere. Enter the PCs.

A fascinating adventure reminiscent of the hall of mirrors scene in Island of Fire. The Pagoda has two components. The upper area has six floors and functions as a gauntlet for the Ctehnk master to ascend to Vampirism, now pulling double duty as a trap-heavy gauntlet for the PCs, the lower catacombs house his coffin and the living quarters of the cult. They are never described, which is a missed opportunity. I conceive of them as a mixture between Xerxes’ Immortals from Synder’s 300 and the hermetic assassins from Leiber’s Seven Black Priests.

Interesting potential in the map. Clever players will avoid the front door with its gem of seeing (where they will immediately blunder into a mixed band of assassins, clerics, magic users and fighters) and climb, trying their luck at point 7, though those climbing the place from the outside will have to contend with evil ravens. Elves or those possessed of wands of detection or unusual patience might even enter at 13 or 5. It is equally possible they will enter the catacombs, and likely become trapped there.
Despite the small size of the place, entrances magical and mundane provide egress to the realm above. This place is a deadly trap for intruders. Misdirection extends to the treasure aswell, which is fiendishly difficult to find. An illusory trunk, containing nothing, with the treasure hidden under the flagstone beneath.

Enemies hide behind illusory drapes, a perilous circle of stone, foreshadowed by magic mouths, disgorges undead opponents from 21 one-way doors. A judges guild style encounter with a bowl of incense and two skeletons that if defeated will rise as the next strongest undead. There are glass portals appearing as one-way mirrors. Drapes reveal a doorway into a mysterious realm that disgorges shadows. At the top of the Pagoda, the master Shing-Ai himself lurks concealed behind a pillar whilst his illusory doppleganger awaits the characters on a throne of ebony. A room decked with delicious food, all poisoned. You get a sense of misdirection and lurking deadly peril.

The Vampire illusionist master at the top is likely to be a formidable foe for characters of level 3-4 but hidden throughout the pagoda are the means of defeating him. A certain holy symbol and the method of his destruction are alluded too, do you pick up on it in time?

The section underground is arguably far more unforgiving because of the deathtrap nature of the place. There appears at first glance to only a single exit, a one-way door that even if spiked open, closes after a time. A second readthrough reveals the well leading into room 4, forming an alternative escape. Elves, deafened, dumbed and blinded, form both captives and meal for the Ctehnks. The location of the master’s coffin, and the secret relic of the cult, the Goblet of Longevity, will likely prove the doom of overly avaricious adventurers, raising up all manner of living dead and literally bringing down the cavern roof upon would-be pilferers.

This adventure requires a careful readthrough or so before playing it, there are some subtleties to be noted and the AC of the Ctehks is clumsily mentioned at the end of the adventure. It will be useful to note what undead rise where, what the occupants of the rooms are so that theft of the Goblet can be handled swiftly and brutally. Random encounters are absent but they do not seem neccessary in this place, which is liberal with its one-way doors. Treasure is for the most part very difficult to find, the total amount being on the order of 10.000, but the likely haul is going to be much lower, and fatalities are virtually guaranteed. Magic items are plentiful and on point, of course.

There are echoes of Lichway or Death Frost Doom, an artfully constructed deathtrap dungeon, combined with an eerie and unique atmosphere. It is not quite what we would understand as a living dungeon, and those looking for some sort of faction play had best look elsewhere, but the result is a cryptic, strangely compelling and very difficult fantasy romp that your players are unlikely to forget anytime soon. Experienced groups only.

As a postscriptum, the Pagoda is a singularly unassuming name for something this interesting and deadly. The Pagoda of the 1000 Lurking Deaths would have been more on point.


Magic Jar: Remaining magic items. Someone took the description of gemstone properties in the DMG and made a ring with five slots that will have different magical effects depending on the type of gemstone placed within the socket. Good idea, but by the time of your 3rd gemstone this thing is going to be artifact level strength, with several of these gemstones having the effects of other magic items. 25% MR and works as a Protection from Evil against all summoned creatures? For a single gemstone? Works as both Cloak and Boots of Elvenkind??? All dice rolls may be taken twice, with the best result being kept??! Saphires double all the other effects AND give a +1 bonus to magic items?
The sale value of 1200 gp is a joke. Interesting idea predating Diablo type segmented weaponry, but my god is it too powerful. Should have been called the Ring of God.

Great issue.

19 thoughts on “[Review] The Beholder #9; The Pagoda

  1. Just noticed:
    “A blog that only kills animals.”

    …which made me snort some coffee out my nose.

    The Keith Andrews adventure (remember when dudes used to have the name Keith? Seems to have went out of fashion by 1984) actually looks pretty darn good for a 1st level AD&D adventure. I don’t mind short and linear for newbie players, especially with alternate smart/stupid solutions to encounters. 1st level clerics in AD&D turn ghouls on a 16 in 20 (25%…much better than B/X’s 8%) and elvish blood’s immunity to ghoul paralysis (and boosted hps versus low damage attacks) means such an encounter isn’t quite the deathtrap it is for basic D&D. Same with the gargoyle…a real killer in B/X for a party armed with only a single magic dagger (I did this to a B/X group a few years back and it resulted in a near TPK killing 6 of 8 before the surviving pair fled!). Likewise, magic items in AD&D can boost stingy treasure counts immensely at low levels.

    Does the adventure consider the consequences of the PCs not returning the patriarch’s staff, even should they recover it? That’s the kind of stuff that can launch a seriously interesting campaign for young adventurers.

    RE The Pagoda

    Agree on the title needing an update.

    The adventure seems to be directly inspired by the 1978 Bruce Lee film Game of Death. Even if it’s not, that’s the first thing that pops into my mind when I hear “pagoda gauntlet adventure;” which is unfortunate, as it’s not one of Lee’s better movies (not his fault, of course, he died prior to the film’s completion and the studio had to add a bunch of additional footage without him. Also…KAJ was a great basketball player, not so much actor).

    Maimed elven lifestock for cannibal monks is pretty darn good…and creepy…however. Looks like really good use, too (putting them in the catacomb “side-trek” which means it’s an ugly surprise to be discovered, not a front-and-center “look-at-me-how-clever-I-am” central premise), if I’m reading your review correctly. Vampire ILLUSIONIST isn’t bad, either…classed vampires tend to make for really powerful adversaries, but an illusionist mainly provides justification for the illusions present in the adventure. Also, illusion magic is a lot more pulpy/S&S than fireball-slinging wizard types (don’t want to burn down one’s pagoda!).

    Dig it.

    Oh, yeah…and the God Ring is far too powerful. Definite miss. Especially considering the original “Ring of Gax” was published in 1976 (Eldritch Wizardry) even before the release of the DMG (source of the gem ideas) in which it ALSO appears.

    Otherwise…yeah, this sounds like a good issue. Especially like the cover of this one.


    1. [Becker]
      The Gargoyle is going to be tough regardless, but good point on the Ghouls. Although even with 25% turning chance, the odds are still not great.

      The adventure does not consider not returning the Patriarch’s staff, and in fact gives the PCs a set amount of time to gather up whatever valuables they can before teleporting them back along with the staff to get their 100 gp reward. Lame to the core. A Staff of Healing too.


  2. This review has me wanting a cx gabor review with this structural analysis format
    Castle area 1
    Area 2
    3 etc


      1. Yay

        Its a work deserving of a multi part review

        Glad to hear its on the way 🙂

        Sweeeeeet emotionnnnnnssss


  3. I like the cartography style used. It seems consistently good for a 1970s fanzine. Is the same person credited across all of the issues so far?


  4. >>>All dice rolls may be taken twice, with the best result being kept??!

    Yaaay, 5e advantage mechanics 40+ years ago!


  5. I think the “can’t leave the temple” hook could actually be good if the distance were SHORTER. “I can literally SEE THEIR HOUSE but I’m sworn not to leave the temple.” Really lean into the ridiculousness of the situation, and make it clear the priest KNOWS this is silly but a vow’s a vow.

    That ring could be neat if it destroyed the gems every night. Still insanely powerful, though.

    Re the name: fuck, what would you people have named The Exorcist? The Pagoda is in the finest tradition of minimalist horror titles. A longer title becomes overwrought and lacks the dread it sounds like this place is very capable of producing.


    1. RE minimalist naming

      While I appreciate the point, pagodas are generally delightful, not ominous. Meanwhile an “exorcism” (and those who perform them) is associated with demons, haunting, and possession.


      1. Pagodas are just a style of tower, man. You’re thinking of gazebos. There are more innocuous examples, in any case:

        The Thing. The Shining. The Descent. The Witch. The Visit. The Ring. The Others.

        While some of the above are also a bit spooky, not all are.

        Plus, look at this picture, imagine it lit by torchlight with occasional screams, and tell me pagodas are delightful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pagoda#/media/File:Zhengding_Lingxiao_Pagoda_3.jpg


      2. If you go by the titles of Supernatural Martial arts movies that seem to have inspired this you see the titles follow a longer and more mystical format.
        The Cave of the Silken Web, The Land of Many Perfumes, Master of the Flying Guillotine, The Web of Death, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires and so on.


      3. Daaamn…if “Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” isn’t already an old style D&D adventure, it really should be. Hell, maybe I’ll write it myself…sounds appropriately 1E-ish.
        ; )

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Movie titles have one very important thing that separates them from module titles: they are consumer facing! Unless the DM announces Today’s Adventure, the players will never see it, so why be coy? Having your movie titled Shapeshifting Alien Eats People In Alaska is terrible, but naming your script that is an elevator pitch in and of itself!


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