[Review] The Beholder #14; Holding Pattern

Written under the spell of the bard.

By now there are few surprises, you know what you are getting into. The gameable bits are very solid this issue. Consistently good tricks, items and monsters.

Amazons: A fighter sub-class. The idea of creating a seperate always chaotic warrior-woman class is awesome, and bravo for recognizing the amazon as a mortal representative of primordial chaos and inversion of the natural order, endowed with supernatural abilities, to be vanquished and tamed by the hero of light, however, the class itself leaves a bit too be desired. D8 hit dice, light armor and limited weapon selection. But what do we get in return for this sacrifice? A curious grab-bag of abilities as the class advances. Charm person on males 2/day, yes, with me so far, but every other power seems culled from other classes. +2 to saves, immunity to poison, then cast CLW 1/day, then immunity to poison, 1st level druid spell, 1st level thief skills. AND you fight for dominance for the upper 3 levels. AND there’s a special amulet that you cannot lose or you will lose your class features. A dabbler class. Certainly poor Hippolyta and her army of cuties deserves better?

Tricks and Traps. Great set of weird tricks to populate your dungeon with. A complicated altar that will teleport offerings placed on it, but there is a way to get at the riches. A stone bridge that turns to mud every other hour. Force Fields. Mosaics that rearrange themselves to spell messages. Chimneys cutting through dungeon levels, but can you pass through the flame! A pool, people inside, if you come closer they try to pull you in, only by pulling one person in can another be freed from it. A small tree, sticks broken off will turn into venemous snakes, a treasure hidden at its core. The weird! A great supplement to the list of tricks in the brown books and supplement I.

Life After Death II: Dubious addition to the original concept. Druids go to the elemental planes and become elementals? That’s actually kind of neat. Once again the concept of playing some sort of campaign of planar courtly conquest is so immense it could easily encompass an entire volume. 1 page is therefore little more then a teaser.
There is something interesting about codifying the undead as petitioners of a certain alignment of insufficient dedication so that they are rejected from the planes. They must either become undead under the control of a powerful outsider (of both alignments? Are there solars out there with a menagerie of the living dead?) or more interestingly, they become wandering spirits in the astral plane, trying to possess wandering mortals, and risk being erased by psychic storms every month or so. The possibilities are intriguing, but at this level, they are less then outlines. Good fodder for conversation, the start of something ambitious or soaring imagination, not something that can be run as is.

Index: An index of all the monsters published in Beholder so far. For your amusement and speculation.

Magic Jar: Mostly very good selection of magic items. A paragraph each is just right. Mechanics with a sprinkling of flavor. The wonder is contained in powers of the item. A scabbard that causes a sword to leap in one’s hand at the first sign of danger, a blade that drains the mind of those it strikes, and allows its wielder to unleash the harnessed energy in the form of psychic bolts, dust that animates objects, a piece of chalk that may be used by a druid to denote an area that will be affected by a halluciogenic forest, and last and not least, the terrifying Staff of Energy, an artifact on par with the Staff of Power (but NOT the staff of the mage!).

Death Traps: A superhero 2044 article advocating the use of the classic death trap, where the players are captured and left to suffer some sort of terrible fate if they do not escape. I’m not sure if the examples, which all allow the hero to use his superpowers to escape, really suffice. You’d want a situation where the player has to conceive of a nonconventional way to escape the death trap that the villain had not foreseen. I don’t play Superhero 2044, but the 3 examples are nice fwiw.

New Magic Spells: For whatever reason magic spells don’t hit as hard. I did a readthrough of Tome of Magic on the discord, and our conclusion was that coming up with a genuinely new spell that solves an existing problem in a way that makes the game more fun is actually quite difficult. Giving the druid a spell that allows them to track animals (1) and persons (2). What about a spell that gives you temporary dwarven stonecunning. Something leaves a foul taste in the mouth. Extrapolate gives a little information on the creature if you have a bone. Eh… I like the idea of a 5th level cleric spell that enchants a large area to hedge out creatures that would be affected by a protection from evil spell. A thief/wizard spell that grants a character 18/00 str for 1round/level for sudden jailbreaks? A lot of this is edge cases or variations on a theme.

Gorge of the Afterlife
Guy Duke

AD&D 1e
Lvl 2-6 (25 levels total)

A trek into a mythical canyon, once used as a burial place for heroes, now taken over by evil. It does a good job creating a plausible naturalistic location with some fine set pieces but the ending is a bit uneven.

Good things first. Natural hazards and obstacles. Roaring river, with precipitous path alongside. Impenetrable marsh, where animals cannot enter. Narrow passageways through the rock. Waterfalls. A lake of water cold as ice. Flanking vast stone archway into the Gorge, two statues of gargoyles, warding off supernatural evil (mortal evil can pass with a saving throw). Despite the essentially linear nature of the first segment, there does seem to be enough room to avoid most of the hazards if the party is cautious. The only thing that I would have liked to see covered is if the party tries to (magically?) climb the 150′ (yards presumably) cliffs and simply walks across the rock canyon. Disregarding such unsporting speed-running tactics, it is very interesting. Random encounters are a slight cut above the usual monster listings, a troll fishing with a net, wounded ogres, orcs carrying dead rabbits etc.

Encounters proper. That delicious late 70s style known as good vanilla. What amount to monster lairs are placed along the way. Get attacked by hordes of giant rats. A lair of brigands with a (second) concealed exit. They could have used some sort of order of battle or description of their reaction but you have enough to go by. Then a treasure concealed in the marsh. A cryptic hint in a mouldering book in a tomb in the rock walls, alluding to the existence of an Inner Tomb containing great wealth. Two towers, one garrisoned with hobgoblins, guarding a stairway. Then six tombs and tumuli, many of them plundered, but only 1 holds the secret to the inner tomb that you seek.

Some are totally empty. Some haunted by undead. Some are crumbling. One is used as a den by a wolverine, others overrun with ankhegs. Its that gygaxian naturalistic style, it has all the familiar elements but the detail combines to give the impression this was an actual place. The doorway into the inner tomb is surrounded by skeletons. Dare you try and open it? But then there is another way into the tomb proper!

In an ironic twist, the actual dungeon is a bit weaker. Interesting, and arguably frustrating use of one-way and secret doors. The drow show up, but they have none of the plethora of magical equipment, or clever use of their abilities, indeed, they fight as 1st level fighters and have no order of battle to speak of. An underutilization of this iconic adversary. I mean the dungeon is still alright, there’s a Guardian Naga demanding tribute near the entrance, your usual warded tombs, some drow fighting an ahnkheg but this feeling of organic naturalism has dissipiated. Most of the protections on the tomb only target evil creatures, a surprising twist. There is a sort of BBEG (a wraith with a legion of undead followers) and a big smackdown at the end, but it feels a bit contrived, included almost out of reflex. I would have appreciated giving the Wraith some sort of agenda, or some hint of how he got here. This pertains to the tomb in general. Adding some specificity, fleshing out the culture a bit more, replacing the drow with some sort of weirdo cultists, this would have added some color to it. The intruders in the canyon feel like they belong, conversely the drow in the tomb feel out of place. Are the drow meant to be devil-worshippers, in thrall to the Deathwraith?

Treasure is concealed more or less properly, and is colorful jewelry, interspersed with piles of coin, and a good spread of magic items, with many consumables. A demon trapped in a stone is not a bad haul either. The total treasure is around 12k, certainly on the miserly side, with a sizeable chunk of it contained in the final room.

This one is not so much good as good enough. The strong beginning should provide enough juice to justify the mediocre ending. The haul at the end should assuade wounded egos somewhat. Difficulty seems about right.

A low ***

Monster Summoning: Comparatively short (4 entries only), but 2/4 of them rock. The Marsh Hag and a spider that spins webs of monofilament wire. I am less enthusiastic about the were-goblins though I suppose you need something to fortify your goblin tribes with and the actual abilities are good (the were-snake can turn sticks to snakes, the were-panther can cast darkness). Rock lizard gets an indifferent raised eyebrow by trying to fulfill the niche the Rust Monster already fills.

Traveller: Fascinating idea storm of including spatial anomalies like White Holes, Hyperspace storms, Relativity, disrupted space lanes, wrecks, plague ships, ghost ships etc. I don’t play Traveller, but the ultimate RPG must be out there, in the stars, beyond the surly bonds of terrestrial gravity. You can do almost anything in space, your tapestry is infinity, master of a thousand worlds, monarch of 14 tech-levels, lord of the aeons, SPACE MASTER.

Pretty good.


8 thoughts on “[Review] The Beholder #14; Holding Pattern

  1. Re the undead: that IS an interesting idea. I’d likely frame it as undead are evil, and must do more evil until they earn their way in. Good would presumably have a corresponding thing where you have to do more good to get in, but I’m not sure what fills that niche mythologically (other than maybe the outsiders themselves, and once you get good enough you stop being an outsider and subsume into the plane).


    1. They would surely furnish you with some sort of temporary body? Haunting the material world as a hole in creation, a remnant of your corporeal self, doomed to recreate the evil of your own existence seems very un-good.


  2. Another good cover picture with lots of fanzine goodness promised.

    I wonder if the adventure is a bit weaker in the second part because that was already written before the first part?


  3. So many comments here that I want to “like” but the site’s not allowing it.
    : (

    RE New Tricks

    Some good ones there. I can’t help but feel the Hickman’s must have read this issue, because I swear I’ve seen several of these (or variations) in their TSR-era modules.

    RE The Difficulty of Writing New Spells


    RE Amazons

    Not a fan of Amazon as a PC class, but might consider it for AD&D using the UA barbarian as a “template.” As a monster type in B/X however, I’ve found Amazons work GREAT as a re-skin of hobgoblins (really, all you need to do is change the name…perfect). B/X players that want an “Amazon” background should be pointed to the fighter class (as Starmenter says).

    Amazons in Blood Bowl are a pretty good team.


    I’m with Knave on this one…VERY interesting idea for the undead. It’s basically D&Difying Dante’s Inferno. Oh, you weren’t into alignment and deity worship? No crossing the River of Styx for you! Back to the surface world!

    This dovetails pretty sweetly with some religious variations of D&D I’ve been thought-bashing the last few months. Like Satan at the bottom of the Mythic Underworld megadungeon (why else would the toughest monsters on the lowest levels be demons and devils), and monstrous humanoids (orcs and such) being corrupted humans/demihumans, warped by their devotion to evil. Lot of possibility when you start going down this road.

    I’m okay with druids turning into elementals, maybe restricting it to higher levels. Would also be cool to have them simply reincarnate as different things (birds, animals, woodland creatures, etc.) based on level…and ALSO put restrictions on clerical magic to bring them back to life. Hell, tie it all to druid level…1st and 2nd level druids that die just come back as shrubs and trees (and thus are useless to raise from the dead…roll up a new character, chump!). Lot of interesting world-building possibilities for fiendish DMs looking to drill down into the cosmology and fit of individual classes in their campaign.
    ; )

    RE Monsters

    I love me a good Marsh Hag. Well, any kind of hag, really.


  4. I like all those ideas for undead rather a lot (gosh, me, here for death-and-resurrection play as the central pillar of a fantasy setting? quelle fuckin’ surprise), but this presentation does sound a little “what of it” – something of which I’ve been guilty myself, to be fair. You need to do the legwork on high concept stuff like this, make it substantive and pertinent to the play.

    The concept of a spell as solving a problem is spot on. I’ve come to think of spells in D&D as essentially “cheat codes”, allowing a forced and simple solution to X problems per diem. Lock that cannot be picked? Knock. Horde that outnumbers the PCs? Sleep. Shot that cannot be landed? Magic Missile. Route that cannot be found? Passwall, or whatever it’s called. The duds are the ones that exist apropos of themselves, redundant because they answer no question that has not already been addressed.

    It’s not particularly magical, but as a design principle it makes sense.


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