Friday, 26 June 2009

Jakandor: the Last Sandbox

[non-Vaults material. ckutalik at the Hill Cantons blog suggested I should talk a little about Jakandor in terms of exploring city ruins. I wish I'd never leapt with alacrity to oblige his whim; it reminded me how badly rose-tinted glasses can actually affect your memory of something]

The three-book Odyssey series setting could have been one of the last great TSR settings. Published in 1998, when the creditors were already circling and while veritable drifts of unsold Dragon Dice were piled high in the TSR warehouses, the Jakandor setting should - in theory - have been a great success. A self-contained lost world setting where superstitious tribesmen and atheistic necromancers fend off mysterious monsters and fight over the ruins of lost civilisations: this could have been a rethink that revolutionised and revitalised AD&D, as had Planescape or Dark Sun a few years earlier. Just a glance at the Isle of Destiny cover above shows you the potential the setting had. (Are those tiger-headed zombies the Thoth-Amon looking dude is setting on that cowering tribesman?)

Unforunately, Jakandor as released was cataclysmic fail: a textbook example of how not to do it. I can only hope the name Mike Botula is an Allen Smithee pseudonym, because this is some of the laziest hackwork ever committed to paper and spewed onto the market to meet a release deadline.

Isle of Destiny
Format: 96 page book + 32 page DM's booklet, 22"x17" full colour map.
Produced by: TSR
In: 1998, the Dark Age

The volume exploring the Charonti necromancers native to Jakandor, is ok, but no more. Only ok? How do you even manage that?! You have an institutionally atheist magocratic culture who live in the haunted ruins of ancient cities using their own ancestors as advisers, warriors and labourers. How can you possibly make a culture like that boring?

Unfortunately they managed it. The writers appear to have bottled it by actively fleeing from every interesting idea the material might suggest. The Charonti have a caste system; only not really. They are hidebound by tradition, ritual and cultural manifest destiny; except when being wholly rational and pragmatic. They're a culture of atheist necromancers; except all the ones who aren't (i.e.: the vast majority). Priests and Outcasts are reviled and hunted; except the ones who decide to fit in. The Charonti are a dying race fighting for survival in the ruins of their former greatness; but what they're besieged by is never made clear. Ultimately the Charonti culture comes across as little more than a lazy Tekumel pastiche for people who found the original "just soooo tl;dr."

This cultural coping out is entirely supported by the mechanics on offer. The fearsome thaumaturgical plague that destroyed Charonti civilisation is anything but fearsome and can, in fact, be cured by a cheap alchemical mixture. The mighty and terrible necromantic servitors are just bog-standard 1HD skeletons and zombie with silly names. Even the unique magical constructs are yawnsome. Zeppelins made of whale bones, mummified ancestor head libraries, or giant necromantic digging machines made boring? An achievement in itself. And the class kits (you remember these, front-loaded modifications to the existing AD&D classes...) are dull beyond the dreams of accountants. There's a scribe kit for Gygax' sake! Kits take up more than a score of pages in the book, and they could have been dispatched in two.

The DM's Guide, a short 32 page coverless volume containing information on the Knorr, the lost ruins of Jakandor, and a short adventure with a suitably Lovecraftian grue is denser with plot hook and ideas than the 96 page main volume. Lost cities under the sea? Menageries frozen in time? Gates to other worlds? Intelligent undead and their agendas? Rebel priests of the sleeping god? Why was all this goodness not explored before?! Oh? Is that my 32 pages up?

Isle of War
Format: 96 page book + 32 page DM's booklet, 22"x17" full colour map.
Produced by: TSR
In: 1998, the Dark Age

This book introduces the Knorr barbarians (yep, insert your own soup joke). If you just read their brief blurb in the Isle of Destiny DM's guide these guys initially seem pretty cool. Proud Warrior Race dudes with magical mecha totems, spirit brother animals and shamanic magic. Fear arcane magic and the undead. Circle of Life/Earth Mother religion. Despise missile weapons. Loot tombs for sacrificial goods and bragging rights? Yeah, they could be fun.

Unfortunately when you crack open Isle of War you'll see that that's *all* there is to the Knorr. Their culture is no more than a generic Celto-Maori-Amerindian viking animist cliché storm. They're so cliché they actually wear buckskin chaps, count coup on one another, and decorate their weapons with feathers. In 1998! This wouldn't be so bad if TSR hadn't already explored similar cultures in a much more interesting fashion (the Vikings and Celts historical sourcebooks, and Birthright's "Rjurik Highlands" are a couple that spring to mind). The Knorr's motivation to adventure isn't even explained in their book. You learn a lot about them as tribesmen, but their reasons for leaving the tribe and rummaging around in taboo ruins are only to be found in throwaway passages about Knorr tomb-robbers in the Charonti book.

As with the Charonti, the Knorr cultural cop-out is entirely supported by page after page of guff about kits (a dozen animal lodge warrior kits? One would be fine thanks. Three types of semi-ok picarro rogues, and three or four variations on the theme of shaman? Spread those ideas thinner!). The Runequest-style minor magic rituals which anyone - caster class or no - can supposedly utilise cost more than they're worth (4 proficiency slots for a luck re-roll in a setting that tops out at ~10th level? *pfffft*). The rules for totem guardians (30' high remote-controlled wickermen and statues) are fun, but will probably only see use once in a campaign. Full page maps of Knorr longhouses, villages and farms? Waste of paper.

The Isle of War DM's Guide is weaker than the Isle of Destiny version. Larger typeface means less content, and what there is... let's just say it could be better. The included 'adventure' (and I really do use the words advisedly) is certainly no B4: The Lost City, or Hidden Caverns of Tsojcanth. In fact it's more "everyday life in tribal times" than rip-roaring tale of 'barbarian heroes vs. ancient buried evil'. Again, so much promise; failed so badly.

The Isle of Dread points and laughs. Lost cities and dungeons scattered all over a generic island wilderness full of unintelligent creatures (is the isle temperate, sub-tropical or tropical btw? We're never told as far as I recall). The only intelligent creatures on the island: the two (inimical) cultures, and some random roving undead. Monsters and animals only. Final Destination.

Pretty, decorative, but lazy in that the landforms are obviously based on continental America (forested tribal lands to the east; big river valley down the middle; semi-arid and mountainous lands to the west) even though Jakandor is only about the size of Britain. The only good thing about it - apart from the pretty colours - is the deliberate omission of information. Charonti lands are little more than blank terra incognita landforms on the Isle of War map, Knorr tribelands on the Isle of Destiny are based on what horribly out-dated Charonti maps say.

General Conclusion
There are some (few) good ideas in the Jakandor setting, and a lot of things that act as a creative spur by the degree by which they fail of their promise (the "I can write better than this!" factor). The intent was doubtless there. But oh! the execution. Three books to cover a mini-setting with only two cultures and no major new rules content. With an editor who knew his job, and freelancers who weren't being paid by the word, the content could have been cut into one - potentially really good - 96 page book:

  • one chapter on characters
  • one on the two cultures (and ramp the weirdness up)
  • one on lost cities
  • one on the perils of the wilderness
  • one on monster stats
  • one on lost artefacts (magic and otherwise).
Pop the Isle of Legend image on the cover. Add some evocative interior art and colour page backdrops (the Jakandor books have unrelieved monochrone pictures and plain backgrounds - bear in mind that this series was created after the proverbially pretty Planescape and Birthright lines). Job done.

Sad to say, but if this was typical of their late-period stuff then TSR deserved to go to the wall.

note: I haven't included the third Jakandor book "Land of Legend" in this review as I don't believe in throwing good money after bad.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Bestiary of the Vaults: Ashagrals

Ashagrals (aka The Twisted)
No. Enc.: 1d6 (4d6)
Alignment: N
Movement: 90' (30')
Armor Class: 5 (special)
Hit Dice: 3 + 1
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: By weapon +1
Save: D3
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: XXI

Ashagrals appear at first glance to be malignant dwarves with twisted limbs, grossly oversized heads and wildly unkempt hair. They are invariably chained up in a macabre collection of black iron shackles and branks of which any torturemaster would be proud. On closer inspection it can be seen that if freed from their bonds Ashagrals would likely stand taller and broader than men. Their voices are loud, their tempers short, and their sense of their own dignity touchy beyond that of the haughiest aristocrat. They speak Dwarven, Common, and the trade language of Vaults (largely derived from Goblin) in harsh, unmusical accents

Ashagrals are usually found in the entourages of the mysterious Rook Seers of the Vaults, for whom they act as heralds and honour guards. Lengths of chain extend back from the head harnesses of the twisted to the palanquin of their master. Although they are just as insolent and curt to their Rook Seer master as to anyone else they generally serve with commendable dedication and courage.

Ashagrals prefer to wield jagged-edged glaives (treat as pole-arm in all respects) with a deftness that belies their warped bodies. The eldritch runes carved in their shackles mean that each enjoys the benefits of an ongoing protection from normal missiles effect.

Ashagrals replace Bugbears (or similar 3HD humanoids) on encounter tables

(image forced into service from Tina Manthorpe's flickr stream)

Monday, 22 June 2009

Bestiary of the Vaults: Ghistet

"Some say their wailing is the sound of the void between the worlds, and that they can suck out your soul. All we know is...they're called Ghistet."

No. Enc.: 1d4 (2d4)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 180' (60')
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 5+1
Attacks: 2 (2 claws) + 1 (tongue)
Damage: 1-8/1-8 + special
Save: T6
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: VI (X)

Ghistets are pasty-skinned quasi-humanoid predators of the depths. The hairless skin of a ghistet is almost rubbery in texture and exudes a reek like burning wire. Their elongated heads are dominated by a single lidless glistening black eye, and by a needle-toothed maw from which lolls the ghistet's freakishly long, barbed tongue. This warped parody of a face is flanked by a pair of large, back-to-front fan ears.

For all their unusual features ghistets have uncannily acute senses, being able to see in darkness (infravision 90') and hear even the slightest sound (never suprised). The constant keening and jabbering they make ensures that they themselves only surprise on a 1in6. This eldritch babbling causes confusion (as the spell) in all who fail their save vs. spells. Blocking the ears or deafness will lessen the effect, but does not obviate it entirely.

Ghistets have a squatting posture at rest, and use their powerful, double-kneed legs to move in great bounding leaps of uncanny precision and dexterity. Their twin toes are abnormally strong, able to bear the suspended weight of the creature at rest. This malignant race subsist on a diet of raw meat (preferably rotting), but happily supplement their necrotic feasts with the fluids and life energy leached from still-living prey. A ghistet which successfully lands both attacks with their paw-like, wickedly clawed hands on a single target gains an extra tongue attack at +2 to hit. This causes 2-12 points of damage, and the loss of one character level. Ghistets which have recently fed (50% chance) display uncanny abilities of gravity control. They are able to use levitate, slow, and hold person, each 3/day.

Each ghistet suffers under the effect of a personal taboo which they are entirely incapable of transgressing. This taboo is unique to each creature:

1 Fears the sound of ringing bells
2 Cannot climb or descend stairs
3 Is hypnotised by religious symbols
4 Is allergic to Halflings
5 Is compelled to break machinery
6 Cannot move in a particular cardinal direction

Whence the ghistet originate, and what hideous forces warped them so, is thankfully a mystery.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Bestiary of the Vaults: Gronphs

Gronphs (aka Grey Tumblers)
No. Enc.: 1d4 (4d6)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 12
Attacks: 1 trample
Damage: 4d8
Save: F7
Morale: 8
Hoard Class: none

Gronphs are large grey blobs of flesh and muscle 10-12' in diameter and weighing several tons. They have two small, heavily-lidded eyes, one set on either side of their bulk at what form their axle points when rolling, and wide toothless mouth that are used to suck up their fluid diet. They are omnivorous, with the fluids of their diet being either the soft tissues of those they crush, or the output of nutrient fountains in the Gearworks of the Vaults.

Thanks to their thick hide and pliant flesh (typified as "putty wrapped in elephant skin") Gronphs suffer only half damage from blunt force or crushing. When in close combat, enraged Gronphs invariably attempt to slam into their opponent, squashing them into nutritious paste. Thanks to their immense bulk these creatures have a +4 to their attack roll when attempting to trample an opponent that is human-sized or smaller.

Gronphs are of low intelligence - being about on a par with a particularly gormless dog - and are generally placid and inoffensive unless threatened or startled. When not being used as beasts of burden or as the motive force for treadmills, they tend to roll aimlessly around the Gearworks, eating, mating, lowing their mournful songs, and engaging in shoving contests. Gronphs have a tendency to hibernate in corridors (leaving only minimal clearance around them).

note: Gronphs are intended as part of the weird dungeon ecology of the Vaults. They were inspired by big grey rolling ball of crushing death from "Raiders" (to ask "Which Raiders?" at this juncture is to fail geekdom forever!), and by the Rollits from the Frank Herbert short story "A Matter of Traces". Their functional niche is to fulfil my requirement that there be big living roadblocks snoring and farting in the hallways of the mythic underworld (this is entirely necessary to the integrity of my overall creative vision :p ).

Monday, 8 June 2009

Minor Cleric Spell List Tinkerage

Looking at the LL spell list there's a big gap in healing vs. damage-dealing ability. Currently the schema goes:

1. CLW (1d6+1)
4. CMW (2d6+2)
5. CCW (3d8+3)
6. Heal (all but 1-4 hp)

Now, for all it plays into the "avoid fights; find money" ethos of Labyrinth Lord I do wonder if this spread of spells doesn't make the cleric's life a little more difficult than it should be. I mean, by 6-7th level the poor guy will be loaded up on CLW in 1st level slots, to the probable exclusion of all else (any no double-dipping house rule aside, of course).

I'd suggest just swapping Cure Disease into the 4th level list (look, there it is with its good buddy Neutralise Poison!), and reducing CMW to a 3rd level spell. It looks a little more elegant on the tables, and means the cleric isn't just spamming CLW up into the mid-levels of the game.

Thoughts? Objections? Reasons why I am a fool who will bring it all crashing down around us?
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