[Review] The Beholder #11: Pushing the Envelope

A merry Christmas to you all. Though my belly is full with the remnants of an excellent Christmas dinner, and my mind is aglow with the company of family, fiance and friends, I couldn’t resist taking some time to write yet one more review before year’s end. Its a gooder, so I hope you too, taking a breather from a similarly excellent Christmas dinner, will savor it as I do.

Fatigue: We start off on an extremely sour note. A system of Fatigue points, reminiscent of something like Adventures in Fantasy, is introduced. A complicated cross-reference table gives you the total based on Strength, Constitution and current hit points, every point of damage reduces fatigue, every round of combat or turn of movement reduces it further, depending on the type of armor you are wearing. An additional penalty applies for every spell cast (including spell/level), with gradually worsening penalties as soon as one’s fatigue starts dropping below 0. Recovery proceeds by every turn of complete rest.
It is not so much the execution that provokes scorn as the implementation and general concept. It makes the game somewhat more difficult for players, but given the standard 1 turn per 6 of rest in most core rules, the difference is not THAT great. It is the prospect of tracking an extra health bar that goes up and down not just with every combat, but with every turn that induces nausea. Gygax have mercy! Even with poker chips or some sort of electronic turn tracking, please just say no. Use only if you would rather play Adventures in Fantasy.

Temple of Psaan
Guy J Duke & Mike Stoner

AD&D 1e
Lvl ??? (2-5 is about right)

The first short adventure that is decent. Simple hook, the temples of Psaan the Bloodthirsty god of the sea have long been abandoned in favor of gentler gods. The ruins of one are now home to the Mage Maldivius, who has excavated a complex beneath it as a site for experiments. Enter the PCs.

A straight up hostile dungeon invasion, not much in the way of faction play or weird things to interact with. It gets the job done though. Underneath the altar of the ruined temple, you find your way in. I like how the complex has multiple layers of defence. The outer defences has animals (war dogs and carnivorous apes) and a 40′ pit. Then a complex of Gnoll guards. That’s only layer one. Then a complicated maze with vicious pit traps and a few monstrous creatures, very good. Then last, the inner complex, which houses Maldivius and his inner guard, monstrous humanoids, hell hounds, his mutants (the Bone Crushers), his apprentice and the Demon Zdim. Nice notes on who will follow people into the maze, regular ways in which the parties remain in contact, and procedures in case the alarm gets sounded.

Its not bad for a standard dungeon that you can expect to finish in 1-2 sessions of efficient play. Random encounters are giant rats only, fair enough. The recurring gripe is again, the paltry amount of treasure; I am aware magic item XP is a thing in AD&D but even for a first level party the rewards would border on the miserly. Even with standard treasure and mostly standard monsters, the whole is still solid, rewards skillfull play and it does not outlast its welcome.

Based on the story ‘The fallible fiend’ by L.Sprague du Camp, apparently. A low ***, definetely useable in a pinch.

Quest: Brutally mid-witted article by Keith Andrews about the horrors of the alignment system. Having two differently aligned characters in the party alone is apparently enough to cause Rape! Add to this a sneer against what he terms ‘Gygaxian’ thinking and you are in for a treat. A fix for something that is not broken. Add to this a simplified form of combat is proposed in a paragraph and we close off with a statement that living dungeons, nice as they are, would be too simple and monotonous, thus the author continues to use the so-called ‘zoo’ dungeon model. Probably worth reading if only to cement the notion that a certain type of people are a constant in the hobby and no amount of placation will alter their fundamental nature.

Ring of Fire
Guy J Duke and Mike Stoner

AD&D 1e
Lvl 5 – 7

Another good adventure in the main feature. Beholder continues to delight. The caldera of an extinct volcano holds all manner of treasures. 50 years ago a nearby village was destroyed by a dragon. That’s it. What a good hook. An extinct volaco is a perfect site for adventure!

Notice clean map, careful notes on altitude, indicating a bright and orderly mind. The adventure is in effect a series of small dungeons and encounters, to be tackled in sequence as the PCs descend along the inside of the crater. A perfectly viable concept, executed enthusiastically and with competence, leading to something that is, if not brilliant, eminently gameable. Complete lack of bloat. Very good.

On the road down you encounter myriad challenges. The path leads through the layer of a giant spider and its offspring. A rickety bridge crosses a chasm, watched by a Harpy and its charmed guards. Each little encounter has a few environmental features, artfully concealed treasure, bits and hints of flavor and so on. You always get the idea the GM went just a little bit further then what was neccessary, and the result is something that feels rich even if it uses standard elements. It’s a harpy BUT there’s tactics, there’s a chance to negotiate, you have an environmental hazard to contend with, there’s a guard, concealed treasure etc. etc. This sort of thing is the opposite of stunt writing.

Then a Vanquished outpost of the Gnolls, it could have just been another piece of dungeon, but its used to foreshadow the dragon, there’s a key hidden in there, there’s a band of sylphs that might not be hostile, there’s a hint on how to get through the next part of the adventure. The imagery is vivid.

Good use of different types of challenges on the way down. Monster layers, complex encounters, then a labyrinth with traps, but there’s a key to get through it which can either be found or perhaps the PCs figure it out. A ruined temple with Gnolls worshipping the idol of some loathsome bat god, sacrificing a wild pig while a Succubus gazes on the tableau. If you sacrifice the pig this opens the secret door leading to the monster’s treasure, the existence of which is hinted at by the key on a chain around the Succubus’s neck, which burns good characters. This sort of stuff, fantastical concepts, ideosyncratic details making everything feel rich, all of it integrated with the gameplay.

The confrontation with the dragon is again, complex enough so that there is an appreciable difference between foolhardy and cautious players without overstaying its welcome. The dragon uses clever tactics and trickery, there are extra defences around his hoard, and to top it all off, the dragon is not the end of the adventure!

The bottom of the crater has a hill and a little swamp, there’s natural hazards like pockets of chlorine, or quakes, there’s a section through the swamp (which can be circumnavigated by risk-averse players), with pockets of quicksand and hot geysers. Natural hazards like this make it feel more like an expedition. You have your classic wizard’s tomb (who rises as a Wraith thank you very much) but his final treasure eludes you, instead, one more treasure map. Then, at the final resting place, a Xorn has gotten into it, yet a great deal yet remains. A final cruel trap, the statue the PCs walked past on the way down animates as a Stone Golem if the Wizard’s treasure has been violated.

Random encounters are provided in the back of the book, more as an afterthought then anything else. They work, but it was as though the author added them at the last moment, perhaps not realizing how much they can alter the way the game flows. A note on encounter frequency also would have helped, but these are all minor gripes. True to form, although the quantity of magic items is just right, treasure is on the stingy side, about 19.000 GP for extremely thorough scavengers, but for a party of 4-7 characters of level 5-7 this is almost a pittance.

A high *** bordering on ****, nothing fancy but a very fun execution using standard materials, illustrating the strength of the Monstrous Manual and DMG when used with a bit of know-how.

Monster Summoning: Once again entries that you might even end up using. The trick is here that they aren’t TOO wacky. The Ethereal Evil Eye that curses with its gaze is the exception that proves the rule. But monsters like a Piranha, Giant Clam, or a race of mine-dwelling leprechauns that will guide players to unexplored treasures if treated with deference and be a giant pest if insulted are just perfect, really. The Sea Dragon is well-intentioned, and it is only with decades of underwater sourcebooks and entire bestiaries full of aquatic monsters that we now know to fear, avoid and indeed hate the Sea.

A very good issue. Beholder continues to delight.

Update: The Temple of P’saan has been freely made available here.


9 thoughts on “[Review] The Beholder #11: Pushing the Envelope

  1. No “magic jar” this issue?

    Love a caldera-themed dungeon site…that’s the kind of thing that begs for a higher level of challenge (with salamanders, hell hounds, fire giants, etc.). Maps are nice. Some neat touches (giving the giant spider and harpy names makes them “persons,” not just obstacles to hammer down). Treasure does seem pretty light if the harpy lair description is indicative. Dig a magic sword called “Satan’s Blade” but still…a little presumptions for a +2 weapon in the hands of a gnoll, ain’t it?

    Maybe a little too much wizard-as-Big-Bad-antagonist? I like the layering of the Psaan Temple, but I really want…mm, something else. An evil cleric trying to revive the less gentle sea cult, maybe? With crab man followers or something? I don’t know. Mutant creations are cool and all…but gnolls again? Those guys?

    Bloodthirsty god of the sea, fer crying out loud! That’s awesome right there (*sigh*).

    Thanks for the review. Agree on the fatigue thing (though for years I tried different ways to model this myself); just not enough “value add” to create a system that tracks exhaustion.

    Wish these were available from DriveThru.


      1. Aw, come on, Prince, you know full well that hit points don’t track health! It’s a random mish-mash of skill and luck, with some physical endurance sprinkled on. Tracking fatigue is more akin to tracking wounds.


      2. I understand your point a bit better. Hit points is a beautiful abstraction of luck, divine providence, endurance and physical injury. I would agree that a complicated system of injuries does not add much to DnD, although I am a fan of ACKs below 0 injury tables.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Another nice review. Again, great maps and evidemce of a proper idea and how to design to bring that about. The caldera adventure reminds me a bit of the later UK5 Eye of the Serpent in that they are both controlled wilderness adventures with mini dungeons and challenges in between. This one seems better than UK5 (which I have a soft spot for).


  3. Hey, I’ve read The Fallible Fiend. It’s basically a joke novel subverting the expectations of sword & sorcery. I’ve enjoyed some of the stuff L. Sprague de Camp wrote but this one is reddit-tier. The AD&D scenario is probably better than its source material.


  4. Fair comment on Psaan. Actually an uncredited scenario written by me with the map redrawn by Guy Duke. One of my early contributions to TBH. The cover artwork for this issue is by Quentin Manley, a drawing of one of my PCs at the time. Quentin did all the illustrations for my pieces in Beholder and Demonsblood, gosh that was a long time ago…


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