The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time (OSR)
This adventure clocks in at 52 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover,2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of back-list, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 43 pages of content, laid out for 6’’ by 9’’.
My review is primarily based on the print softcover version I received from one of my patreons, who requested a review of it at my convenience. I have also consulted the pdf-version to ascertain electronic features etc.
That being said, I would have reviewed this module either way. Why? Because it is one of the worst-reviewed Lamentations of the Flame Princess books, one that I only got for completion’s sake. I had the pdf-version for a while before this was requested by my patreons and only then started reading it. Now, usually, I steer clear of other reviews in order to avoid coloring my point of view. Here, I never expected to write a review when I got the book, and as such, was very cognizant of the backlash this generated.
Now, I am not saying that most reviews get it wrong – while there are some negative ratings and reviews that stem from being offended by a horror product, there are more eloquent ones out there that frankly made this sound like an unmitigated mess. To make that abundantly clear: I do not share this point of view, but I think I know where these notions come from. Hence, I will try to explain why this book did elicit these responses.
Let’s begin with a clarification of terminology; I promise to be brief: This is a lovecraftian adventure. The “n” here is important – this does NOT deal with Lovecraftiana or the Cthulhu mythos in the traditional sense. In fact, nowadays, we can make a claim that the mythos has actually ceased to have any notion of being “lovecraftian.” In stark contrast to most depictions of the Cthulhu mythos in media, the term “lovecraftian” usually denotes a sense of cosmic nihilism and futility oozing into our world; a sense of cosmic insignificance and unknowable forces. The sheer amount of material collected on Cthulhu et al. undermines this notion rather vividly and once the brave PCs/investigators have fired tank shells at ole’ Shubby, any sense of dread beyond that which a sword-wielding murder-hobo might feel in front of a dragon, has been thoroughly lost. In short: The mythos has been codified and elaborated upon to the point where, paradoxically, while obviously a crucial part of Lovecraftiana, it is no longer lovecraftian in the strictest sense of the word. Similarly, it does not attempt to depict the lovecraftian as seen through the lens of psychology, but more as the unfiltered, played glimpse at a harsh, Lacanian real.
The second unfair claim I have seen voiced against this module, is that it has “unfair” components. I’d frankly beg to differ. Yes, this is a very difficult module, but it is NOT difficult because of badly designed save-or-die mechanics. It does not just randomly punish PCs – all they experience is ultimately their own doing.
It is difficult because it actually works as a module for ANY levels. In fact, it may work better from mid- to high-level characters. How does it achieve that? Well, more than ANY OSR-module (and most RPG-modules, regardless of system), success in it is utterly and thoroughly contingent on PLAYER-skill. NO matter how optimized your character is, no matter how OP your items are, this module can and will destroy you if you are not up to your A-game. If you and your group usually just want to murder-hobo through a dungeon, then this will ANNIHILATE you. It should be noted that players with copious horror-gaming experience will be MUCH more likely to succeed here. This requires very methodical and smart PLAYERS.
There is no pattern on a global scale to the monolith’s effects – and there’s a reason for that – it is not sentient, and there is no global, guiding intelligence. It just IS. It is indifferent and weird. While the phenomena can be analyzed and exploited/bested, they cannot be made sense of. They cannot be explained away. This is actually very deliberate and smart here – because, y’ know, when does the horror-movie start to suck? When does the book start to fall apart? Bingo, when the authors explain too much and provide human motivations to beings/things that are more akin to forces of nature, inscrutable and unknowable. You can’t reason with the weather, but you can witness the tempest blaring or a tsunami, and you can observe patterns in these individual manifestations of it. There is serious fun in that, in finding the tricks for survival.
Even in this context, this remains a horror-module. Bad things will happen to PCs and a palpable doom hangs over everything. There is no true victory, but also no true defeat here. This is a difference in mentality that anyone with horror-experience, from CoC, to GUMSHOE or Ravenloft, will be familiar with – the fun in these horrific things is to roll with the curveballs they represent, not to complain about them.
It is actually pretty likely that the PCs will survive, but it is also very likely that the module will have serious repercussions that can change the course of whole campaigns.
The module is not only demanding on the players, though: This is a lovecraftian adventure and as such, it can include some seriously mind-bending components that require that a referee is capable of conveying somewhat mind-bending dissolutions of space and time in eloquent speech. It is my firm belief that quite a few folks who experienced this as less than fulfilling did so because the referee did not manage to convey the concepts, because the group did not approach this with the required, deliberate care. Granted, one weakness here is that the module does have a bit of James Edward Raggi IV’s sarcasm shining through, when one description comments “Good luck describing that to your players!” – that can feel like an insult to a referee who already did struggle with understanding the notion in question. It may be another reason why some considered this to be problematic. (In the Spoiler-section, I quote the passage in question, so you can see for yourself why this indeed requires some serious referee-mojo…but it’s definitely not impossible!)
To cut a long ramble short: If you *like* horror-gaming (and I’m not talking about some dark fantasy, slightly gritty hack and slash, but about HORROR; if your players are veterans and like challenges; if your group loves having their brains challenged; if you are an experienced referee, capable of conveying complex concepts in vivid descriptions, then this may well be a true masterpiece for you.
As an aside: This adventure can also double as a great scavenging toolbox – the encounters and weird effects basically demand being used, and a great degree of variance allows for a rather high replay value.
Now, to go into more details, I need to venture into SPOILER-territory. Folks who wish to actually play this module should jump ahead to the conclusion.
Somewhere in the world, a wooden valley has appeared. Mist-shrouded and uncivilized, in its midst, there is a strange monolith, a weird thing somewhere between rock and rotted flesh. It is into this valley that the PCs set foot. This, alone, may well be enough to doom them. No, I am not kidding you. You see, the distance to the monolith can be feet, yards, hundreds of yards, miles…or astronomical units. You roll once for dice-size/number, and one for the unit of measurement. You can, theoretically, end up with 1000 astronomical units of distance. See, that’s why I mentioned that smart and methodical PLAYERS are required – distance is recalculated every time the valley is entered. Failing to grasp the spatial distortion can essentially strand the PCs in a nigh-infinite valley. There is another complication that is utterly glorious: The monolith effects. Beyond the distance, there are 10 complex, global effects, one of which kicks in whenever the PCs enter the valley.
These include the “Doom of Hierarchy” – all members of the party roll a d20, rerolling ties. Everyone must obey the letter (if not the spirit) of an order issues by a member of the party with a higher roll. Slowed lifeforms. Oh, and if you really think your Referee-mojo is top-notch, try for “Light defeats Distance.” To give you a quote: “This condition prevents characters from traveling across space during the day, no matter how far they travel. Whatever destination the player characters have in mind, when they travel, they will appear to cross distances (and intervening terrain), but they will never get any closer to their destination and in fact will have not moved at all. They have effectively been walking in place the entire time. Thrown or discarded objects (or spells!) will be observed as traveling to their destination, but will never arrive. If something is tossed (or shot) from one person to another, the one throwing/shooting will perceive the object as reaching its target, while the character on the receiving end will perceive the object as having been wildly misdirected. The object will not be found again. Items can be physically passed from person to person normally.[…]”
Told you that this one would be a challenge, right? Can you see how some groups will be utterly flabbergasted and frustrated by this? I can. I can, however, also see how incredibly AMAZING this effect can be in the hands of a capable referee! Can you see the PLAYERS figure that one out and how to get past its effects? Oh yes. The mutation effect sports btw. no less than 20 different entries in a subtable. Impossible weather, distorted time flow…and what if the monolith makes things the PCs and players wish for come true? These effects alone had me grin my most malicious of GM-grins – and indeed, they are relevant beyond the confines of the rules-system for which they were written.
This emphasis on PLAYER-skill over PC-skill btw. continues throughout the whole module. There are exactly two possible encounters en route to the monolith that are more classic: The first is an encounter with a nudist colony of pacifists, supernaturally ageless and fertile, the colony subsisting on its own children. Yes, this is disturbing. Yes, that would be the shock-value encounter to piss off folks. It didn’t do much for me, but neither was I offended. The second deals with basically a mutated, ginormous angler-fish monstrosity, which would be a perfect place to note that Aeron Alfrey’s illustrations throughout the module are PHENOMENAL. Weird, disturbing, glorious art. Love them.
Anyways, the more interesting encounter would be the contribution by none other than Kenneth Hite, who wrote “The Owl’s Service.” The PCs happen upon strange statues ringing a clearing, a corpse, which may have a possession that is starkly like one held by the PCs – and in the aftermath, the PCs may well find their SPELLSLOTS infested by owls after disturbing dreams. The infestation may well spread…and the head of that corpse was bashed in…perhaps to let out the owls? There is no explanation here; no easy remedy. Just a plainly weird and encroaching doom that any campaign can handle as befitting of its own paradigms and dynamics. It could be just a curse to remove, but it similarly could be a world-threatening magical disease that spreads from caster to caster…
Arriving at the monolith has its own hazards and, indeed, represents another potential fallout during/after the adventure – seeing the monolith has the PCs invaded by microscopic invaders, whose civilizations in them rise and fall, becoming even more hyper-advanced. Unfortunately, this also hijacks the PCs when they are asleep, making them invincible killing machines with a pretty extensive kill-boundary. Once more, this is provided as a problem that can have dire consequences for the PCs, but when handled properly, it can make for a truly horrific revelation at the table…and solving the problem can be amazing. Unlike the owls-issue, closing the monolith can deal with this one, rendering them dormant…but yeah. I can see how these invaders can really irk folks only used to “I’m good, therefore I kill evil stuff.”
The monolith also has a guardian, who is a rather dangerous entity…and once more, represents something the PCs can’t bash apart. See a theme there? As noted above, this is not a module you can rollplay to win.
The inside of the monolith continues this almost psychedelic nightmare – there is only the way in which the character is facing. Closing eyes also ends the way, entrapping the character, unable to move until the eyes are once more opened to The Way. The tunnel is always in front of the character, a single line. Distance does not truly exist, and an example of how this works is given – within the monolith, the PCs have basically already reached the treasure-chamber…if the players understand how to get to it! The monolith allows access to other worlds and times, contains strange healing pods – and attempts to find the “control room” or the like will actually have the PCs within the brain of the respective PC who voiced that wish. And yes, destroying stuff there may not be wise. Weaponry-wise, the PCs can find a slime/ooze-drinking worm-symbiote…and the head of Carter Holmes. This is actually the main “treasure” of the adventure, and it is twisted. The man is a thoroughly vile magic-user. Pardon. Was. He’s just a head now. Literally confined to this place for all eternity. He wants to die. And tells the PCs about the kewl loot they can get – they just need to eat his brain. Yes. The disembodied head offers for his brain to be eaten.
If your players think that eating the brain of a thoroughly wicked magic-user in a weird dimension-warping monolith is a good idea, then they totally deserve what they get – for better and worse, for Carter’s brain can convey 6 unique spells, all of which are comparably very potent; similarly, PCs may gain agelessness (at a potentially dire cost…), faster reflexes or the option to move between the lines…but he was a loathsome, despicable psycho. As such, the PCs may also have their minds tainted by his horrible insights, which double as serious insanities. It’s all about the luck here – and if they complain, you seriously just have to point out that they ATE A BRAIN to get power.
How can the monolith be banished? How can the PCs win in this nightmare? You can hold the door shut. From the inside. For an eternity. Yes, there is no easy solution. There is no cop out.
Editing and formatting are topnotch on a formal and rules-language level. I noticed no serious hiccups. Layout adheres to a 2-column b/w-standard and the artworks, as mentioned above, are b/w and Gigeresque in their amazing weirdness. The softcover has the letters on the spine and is solid. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and s layered, so if you want to save ink/toner, you can turn off background etc. – huge kudos there! The module sports no cartography, but needs none.
Now, I have only touched on some highlights featured herein – James Edward Raggi IV’s module actually contains more than I mentioned. I also tried to remain as opaque as possible, mainly because the emphasis on player-skill/encountering the horror as the central tenet and focus of the adventure.
If you’re looking for an easy-to-run, low-impact, generic hex-crawl with a bit of weirdness and tentacles, then look elsewhere. This is not what you’re looking for.
Similarly, if you’re relatively new to GMing, or if your players have no experience with horror-gaming, with problems that can’t be solved by rolling high enough, then you may want to ease them into horror-gaming with other modules.
If, however, you’re an experienced referee and if your players are experienced and smart as well, if they enjoy weirdness and strange problems that can’t be solved by waving a metal stick at them, then this is a psychedelic masterpiece of a nightmarescape. A good litmus-test may be whether you and yours enjoy purist-Cthulhu-modules: Do you like the weirdness, the fact that only your wits stand between you and death/gibbering insanity? Can you live with strange and dire effects? Do you like roleplaying the solving of complex and bafflingly weird phenomena that highlight the uncaring and hostile nature of the cosmos? Then, oh boy, will you love this one!
To make that abundantly clear – I am not trying to disparage other reviewers and folks who did not like this; I can see this crash and burn horribly for newbies, for folks that need a focused leitmotif/mystery to solve, for groups that have only ever played fantasy, etc.. Unlike Death Frost Doom, for example, this is not even dark fantasy. This is cosmic horror, pure and simple. Its premises are different, its focus is different and its challenges are different – there is no overwhelming force, no super-strong foe, no easy solution – just the uncaring, insentient, almost divine obelisk.
So yeah, many, though not all, points of criticism voiced against this module can be considered to be valid to a degree.
At the same time, I’d argue that these bemoaned points are actually features, not bugs. They are very deliberate design-decisions rooted in an aesthetic that differs radically from traditional D&D-esque adventure-design. They are not made to screw over PCs, but to present truly horrifying challenges to the players. How you navigate and solve them is another thing, but to me, this module is more successful in its attempted and clearly-stated design-goals than 90% of CoC-modules I’ve read. Considering the very clear mission statement, I cannot help but think of this as a resounding success. I am probably going to get some blowback for this, but personally, I prefer this over pretty much all of the early LotFP-modules.
Why? Because it dares to be radically, defiantly DIFFERENT. Because it, in spite of being downright brutal, this adventure is actually inspiring. As an aside: Most of the global effects and challenges herein translate rather well to more complex systems or more rules-lite systems, courtesy of their focus on player-capabilities over those of PCs.
This adventure is weird. It is challenging. And I am 100% positive that no player that went through it will ever forget it. It absolutely DEMANDS a truly experienced referee and similarly skilled players, but it delivers for them, in spades.
My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. If you’re a fan of horror-adventures and feel like the above has resounded like something you’d enjoy, then consider this to be a must-own purchase, regardless of system you’re playing in.
You can get this inspired piece of weird/horror-gaming here on OBS!