Crypt of the Science-Wizard (5e)
The first publication of Skeeter Green Publishing clocks in at 44 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 38 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange of a fair and unbiased review. I have consulted both the pdf and the print version for the review.
So, let’s start with the first thing you’ll notice upon opening the module: The covers are sturdy and detachable and hold a massive map of the main adventure area; and, before you ask, the electronic iteration does feature a full-color, player-friendly iteration as well as a graphic of the somewhat isometric overland map; these two, for once in my life, are actually components, though, which, while helpful, do not account for my eternal cries for player-friendly material; oh no. Yeah, I kinda got what I usually complain incessantly about. But guess what? The module goes a step further. The softcover saddle-stitched module with its delightfully old-school-y detachable cover? It comes with something that should have been standard for years, but isn’t.
A separate booklet.
This booklet is 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), and it shows regions and rooms found in the module. From a parchment/treasure-map to a sea hiding a barely (but clearly!) visible entrance to a complex to a hallway with walls studded in hieroglyphs and strange pictograms, the module takes one of the best pages out of Goodman Games’ playbook and escalates it to the level that I wanted to see. Yep, you heard right. A 20-page handout booklet (6’’ by 9’’/A5) for the players. F*** YEAH!
…ähem. Apologies. So, this booklet is where a lot of the module’s budget went, its artworks far superior to the other pieces within, but guess what?
That’s how it should frickin’ be.
The handouts? Everyone at the table gets to see them. What good is a gorgeous, beautiful map, if only the GM gets to see it? What good is a lavish fight-scene depicting some iconics instead of the PCs? What good is an assassination scene that the PCs won’t witness, and that spoils the mystery of an investigation? Bingo. This module, for once, prioritizes where its art-budget should go correctly, providing cool artwork where it’s seen. Huge frickin’ kudos. If anything, other publishers should take a careful look at the module for that reason alone.
Anyhow, where was I? So, this is the first of the “Tales of the Black Tower”, but the module very much is a stand-alone offering – you’ll have no more annoying dangling plot-threads than in any other adventure, i.e. enough to hook the next module in a wide variety of ways, and enough to run this as stand-alone, should you so desire. Nominally, the module is recommended for 3rd level characters, but is designated as a difficult adventure – this difficulty, just so you know, stems from how it challenges the players. Veterans may tackle this as soon as 1st level (provided the GM tones down the combat encounters), and much like my previous comparison with Goodman Games’ DCC-modules, I’d actually consider this in aesthetics close to them: This is a pulp fantasy exploration that values player skill over character skill. Save-or-die-scenarios are absent, but the module is still deadly. In short: It is a hard module, but it remains fair in its difficulty.
The module features boxes of read-aloud text, and sidebars “Behind the GM-screen” that further elaborate on the proceedings within. Random encounters, where applicable, are slightly more detailed than usual, featuring brief descriptions as well as the relevant stats. References to stats or sections have been bolded in the text, and proper formatting has been implemented, making the parsing of the adventure information reliable.
Now, if you’re a 5e-GM, chances are that you’ve, at one time, taken a chance with a 5e-module converted from OSR-rules. There is an excellent chance that the result was not pleasant. There are plenty of OSR-authors playing a kind of pseudo-5e, one that works at their table, but one that also does not, not even closely, work in proper 5e-games. There often is a lack of understanding regarding rules and the intricacies of the system on display that is absolutely aggravating.
Yeah, this is NOT the case here. Not at all. This is a PROPER 5e-adventure. The author obviously knows the game, has played it, and has actually analyzed how it works. The rules conventions are in place, the execution is excellent: Ability checks are what they’re supposed to be; saving throws make sense, damage types are correctly implemented, and same goes for conditions. There is one instance where boiling water has no type to its damage, and the names of the features/actions of the new monsters, “Melee/Ranged Weapon Attack”, and “Hit” are not properly depicted in italics, but that is a purely cosmetic issue. Saves, skills, passive Perception – all CORRECT. I love this. There is another aspect to this module’s 5e-iteration that I feel I need to mention, but that ties into the SPOILER-section below. For now, rest assured that you actually get a proper 5e-adventure here, and not some minimum effort hackjob of a conversion.
It should be noted that the module has an implicit setting that can easily be adapted to desert /wasteland environments, including wilderness random encounter tables, but which has a distinct Mesopotamian slant – while it is easy enough to get rid of this flavor component, I’d genuinely suggest not doing so, for it imho adds to the unique flavor of the adventure.
All right, and this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great! So, we begin with a scroll, that feels like it’s been taken out of the Nemedian Chronicles, weaving the yarn of mighty god-emperor/wizard Kersete, and the vengeance the entity has wrought upon partially successful insurgencies; Kersete may not be active in the world right now, but the mighty being remains unconquered, and indeed, both in nomenclature and in the way all of this background story is conveyed, we have distinct impressions of a twist on the Gilgamesh epic, save that we have an excerpt from a chronicle of an antithesis of the myth, of a deadly being.
The module presents essentially the entrance to the Black Tower where Kersete lairs, but unlike many modules that are parts of series, it is a feature-complete experience sans dangling threads, should you choose to run it right now.
Structurally, the module makes a whole bunch of daring decisions I love seeing: For one, there is a pretty good chance that the players may not even find the proper finale; false treasure-rooms and ends are included, and indeed, unless your players are really SMART, they may not even find the potential entrance to the Black Tower or the module’s boss encounter.
Combat is sparse once inside the complex, and indeed, the primary focus lies on traps and creative problem solving. It is my utmost delight to note that there is not a single sucky “invisible line”-trap herein. This adventure employs the best trap design I have seen all year, regardless of system; heck, it ranges among the best adventures out there in that regard, period. You see, not only are the traps CLEVER, they can’t be simply disarmed with a roll of the dice – the module expects the party to act in a small manner, and the traps MAKE SENSE. There is a thorough commitment to the complex MAKING SENSE. There is, for example, a checkered floor, obviously trapped, that sports a time-waster of sorts, and deadly gas – this gas is delivered in sequence of types, with only the final one being lethal, and allowing the party enough time to rescue their compatriots. Can it TPK the party? Yeah, sure. But that’d be a deserved loss. One of my favorites is a kind of moving, thin ledge that needs to be traversed – it’s made of flint, and creates rains of sparks that ignite essentially kerosene-like fuel in the pit below. It can be jammed, used in tricky manners, heck, even weaponized by smart parties.
It’s VERY hard to describe just how meticulously the module sticks to the paradigm of providing a fair, but thoroughly challenging dungeon for people who want more out of the game than rolling to hit (though that is included as well!). It took me a while to fully appreciate how intricately and well designed the whole complex is, how it systematically emphasizes being smart over dice rolls. And how it uses its handout booklet and the depictions there to further create these challenges and portray them in a fair manner. There, in the back…isn’t that an impaled skeleton? As the party ventures down the corridor, they get ANOTHER handout that shows the scene in more detail. And attentive players really do get an edge in the exploration of the tomb.
And this is where we get back to 5e, and how it influences this module as a system. You probably know that most 5e-groups won’t be as accustomed to the old-school playstyle and its focus on problem-solution and roleplaying over simply rolling checks, right? Well, the module does something GENIUS. It uses checks, rolling the dice, as essentially a hint-system! This is elegant and genius in several ways: It slightly decreases the difficulty of the module for an audience not accustomed to the playstyle AND, at the same time, rewards the players for using the tools at their disposal, the system-immanent options they have. This is sheer genius. I love it. One could argue that the 5e-version is actually more of a design achievement than the OSR-version already is. I know, right? How often does that happen???
Interesting would also be another aspect, though this might be primarily a thing that GMs notice: There is this old adage that stipulates that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Well, guess what? That’s kinda the leitmotif here. From the player’s side of things, the dungeon can feel very much like a magical dungeon with some oddities; from a GMs perspective, we see the purpose of all, the intricate commitment to detail and intelligent notions. Yes, this is pulpy, but it’s up to you how and whether you’d emphasize these components, and the party won’t end the exploration with some anachronistic blaster rifles. In fact, in many ways, the party is cast in the roles of e.g. Conan and similar heroes facing things beyond their comprehension. If you’ve followed my reviews, you’ll know that my comparisons with my beloved barbarian are reserved to adventures and supplements that really do a good job of capturing this ephemeral atmosphere. All of the traps make sense, and there is not a single “a wizard did it”-moment. The module can be mean, tough, and brutal, but it always remains FAIR and retains a perfect commitment to plausibility.
We have a constant, almost obsessive commitment to excellence and foresight regarding EVERYTHING. From how the handouts are implemented, to how it TEACHES what sets it apart from other modules. You’ve heard me gush about e.g. Harley Stroh’s DCC-modules, and how they work; it could be claimed that this adventure goes a similar route, but teaches the PLAYERS from the get-go how to ROLEPLAY the problem-solutions required in the adventure from the onset. What do I mean by that? Well, there is, for example, a kind of storage room that contains various tools that can be helpful. Their presence makes sense. Removing plaster from the walls? You know, that might actually be a GOOD idea here! This dungeon wants you to engage with it, and not consider the walls to be textured like in a computer game. This notion is driven home from the get-go, for the crypt is at the bottom of an oasis’ lake. Opening the crypt will mean that the party has to wait until the water has drained. They’ll also have destroyed, you know, an oasis in the wastelands. Choice, consequence, written in all-caps letters right there. And guess what? They might well accidentally create a sand-water sludge for a moment – this is, essentially, a safe-zone tutorial that does not, not for a second *feel* like one; instead, you genuinely feel a) clever and b) like people exploring an ancient place of wonders.
And honestly, I could go through the module, trap by trap, encounter by encounter, but I’d be doing it a huge disservice.
Editing and formatting are slightly less impressive than in the OSR-version; as noted, on a formal level, we have a few instances where things are not italicized properly; it’s still very good, though, and its use of 5e-rules is excellent. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard. The artworks are okay for adventurer-scenes – the budget has obviously gone where it should, into the massive handout booklet that is pain amazing. The electronic version comes with player’s map etc., and cartography for the region is full color and the VTT-compatible player’s map (which features no secret doors or SPOILERS), b/w for the handouts. The handouts even include a treasure map to the oasis that jumpstarts the adventure. The physical version is AMAZING, capturing the old-school vibe with its wraparound cover and booklet perfectly. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks, making using it a joy. Still, for the handout booklet alone, I’d seriously recommend getting that version, if you can.
I first read material by Skeeter Green when he contributed material to the PFRPG-version of Rappan Athuk, crafting some of my favorite parts of the mega-dungeon. I knew he was no novice, and I had high expectations. When I have high expectations for anything, I usually end up disappointed. This holds doubly true for 5e-conversions, which often, to put it in plain English, suck.
Oh boy was I not prepared for this.
From the support and inclusion of all the formal things you expect, from player maps to bookmarks, to all the other things so many publishers forget, the formal criteria are pitch-perfect., and form a glorious unity with the handout booklet, which is NOT just an optional gimmick, but something that is brilliantly interwoven with the complex’s meticulously-executed design. Both writing and design are fantastic here, and the singularity of vision, of a capital letters ROLEplaying adventure that rewards and teaches clever problem solutions. The use of 5e’s more expansive rules-options as a type of hint system not only is smart, it also contextualizes the module’s playstyle within the system and adapts it in a supremely smart manner.
It took me ages to properly grasp why I adored this module to this extent, it took analysis. In a way, this module reminded me of some of the best authors out there: Much like Richard Develyn’s superb 4Dollar Dungeons modules (seriously, even if you play OSR-games and not PFRPG, get them!), there is a commitment to a distinctly novel vision, and an expert implementation of it, that is frankly astounding. Much like Harley Stroh’s DCC-works, there is a commitment to atmosphere and challenge and plausibility here, one that you may not consciously notice at first, but which suffuses everything.
This is not murder-hoboing 101. There are plenty of good and bad old-school modules that cater to this playstyle. If you want more from your modules, though? Then get this right now.
This is all about creating a consistent illusion of the experience of delving into a wondrous and weird complex. It’s an ephemeral theme, as it suffuses pretty much the entire genre, but know what? This adventure made me realize how BAD a ton of the modules we regularly consume actually are. How artificial, how flat.
If anything, this is one of those stand-out adventures that designers should take a close look at; that GMs should process and run. This is, in short, a masterpiece – and one that manages to attain its excellence without over the top flourishes, shock value or any of the other things that make it easy to sell you on a book. The module proposes a simple question: “Do you need all of that? Doesn’t exploring a creative, smart complex with weirdness and challenges galore, suffice?”
Turns out, it does, at least when executed this well. In many ways, this is old-school in a way that puts many modules of both old- and new-school to shame; it has learned from the past, retained core values, and expanded upon them, injecting new components to enhance the experience.
Do I have complaints? Well, yes. I want more. We need more modules of this quality. To get back to 5e once more: I actually prefer the 5e-version over the OSR-version. Structurally, it is even more clever than the old-school iteration in its “teaching by showing”-approach married to new-school system usage.
This is one of the modules I’ll be referencing in my reviews for years to come. My final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval, and this receives a nomination for my Top Ten of 2019. If you have the luxury of choice, I’d actually recommend getting the 5e-version.
You can get this phenomenal adventure here on OBS!
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