Saturday, September 7, 2013

Review: Meckwick's Challenge (OSR Adventure)

The so-called Old School Renaissance (OSR) movement in gaming has been around for a while now, and has seen a wide array of rules systems developed - I just rattled about 8 off the top of my head including OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Castles & Crusades, Adventures Dark & Deep...

It's for this last system that the adventure Meckwick's Challenge has been created by fellow blogger and All Around Cool Cat Random Wizard. (As a side note, many of you might be wondering why I keep referring to all around cool cats here on my blog. These are people who have chosen to follow Daddy Rolls a 1 over there on the right-hand side-bar. Yup, it's that simple - with just one click you, too, can join the illlustrious ranks of the All Around Cool Cats).

Note that this will be a spoiler-free review for those intending to participate in the adventure as a player. The goal is to help you understand if this sounds like fun so you can run it for your players, or ask your GM to run it for you. 

Quick Summary
Meckwick's Challenge is an adventure for characters levels 5-7, ostensibly for the Adventures Dark & Deep System, but as with most adventures for the OSR, you should be able to easily use this with your system of choice, even including the original versions of the rules such as 1st Edition AD&D.

There's a lot to like in this adventure, including some strong writing, cool character development behind the NPCs involved in the adventure, some clever mechanics behind the structure of how the adventure plays out, and clean, easy-to-read layout. To be upfront, I should point out that I haven't played this adventure as either a player or a GM, but did do a thorough read-through.

Adventure Structure
As a fun, refreshing change for this adventure, the authors present two different methods: you can play the adventure in a "linear" fashion - matching villains to specific encounter areas where the villain will most like have a reason to be there and a slight advantage for being in that area, or in a very innovative mechanic, the GM can roll a combination of an "encounter die" and a"maze die" to create a layout of a labyrinth in which the characters are trapped.

As the characters continue to roll the encounter and maze dice throughout the adventure, they create opportunities to have a "special" encounter with a main villain lurking in a unique lair, the defeat of whom opens a portal to let the characters escape. Included in the adventure at the back are templates for printing, cutting out, and assembling the maze and encounter dice needed for the adventure, along with templates for a "villain die," a "dungeon die," and a variety of dungeon and maze geomorphs that were created specifically for this adventure but developed in such a way that they will work and connect with any other standard geomorphs you may already use in your games.

The idea of having the characters use dice to randomly determine the shape and nature of the labyrinth and the encounters therein really harkens back to the propensity of old-school games to use random tables to roll for everything you can imagine. Unfortunately, what makes for a very innovative and clever mechanic in this adventure also contributes to some very difficult and complicated reading in order to run the adventure. I read the "Introduction" which explains how to use the dice to create the adventure about three or four times and I'm honestly still a bit confused. I kept looking in the introduction for when to roll the villain and the dungeon die, the templates for which are included in the section at the back of the module. I readily admit that, not having actually used the adventure in play, I may just be missing how easy it is, but it seemed rather complicated and I think that a quick once-over to re-edit the section, maybe including an example of how each of the four special dice come into play, would be really helpful.

Encounters
The strength of Meckwick's Challenge is in the presentation of the NPCs and their "lairs." The authors note that "a villain without a history is essentially nameless and the players may interpret the encounter as just another opponent to bowl over on their way to something greater" and to help with that situation, they have provided some great background and history for each of the major NPCs the characters will face, without falling into stereotypical cliches. Without giving anything away, there's just a lot of great, deep stories that are begging to be used as more than just a random encounter. Characters are almost never what they seem, but they're not completely ridiculous and different for the sake of being different. Each one has a rational reason for acting the way they do.

This section also includes descriptions of various areas the characters may visit during the adventure. The names are kept generic so that a GM can easily drop them into his own game, but don't let the names fool you - the Defiled Cathedral might sound like your average fantasy cliche, but that's not the case at all, as it ties into some of the important NPCs and their motivations. We also get a Murderer's Row (slums), a Circus of Lords (including a performing bear), a Mausoleum, the Under Sewers, and Iron Works. Again, each of these are described in a way to generate some cool ideas beyond the scope of the adventure as written. Also, one thing I appreciated is that each area's description is limited to one page - there's just enough to give you a good flavor and spark ideas on how to expand it if you want, without delving into detail that will never be used in what is really intended as a one-time adventure.

Designer Notes and Options
Another thing I always enjoy in RPG materials, whether it's game rules or adventures, is reading notes from the designers on why they did what they did. Meckwick's Challenge includes a lot of these, starting in the introduction and then continuing at the end of the adventure with ideas on "advanced options." It's here where we get a bit more into the use of the Villain's Die - it's intended to add even more randomness to the adventure so by using it you might end up, for example, with the performing circus bear encounter taking place in the graveyard instead of in the actual circus itself. The designers mention this is a chance for a game master to use the dice to help tell the story rather than having it pre-scripted, leading to the GM needing to be a little creative to explain why the bear might be there. I actually think this section, with a bit better layout, would be better served at the front of the adventure in a "How to Use the Special Dice" section.

We also get ideas on using time as an element to increase the suspense of the adventure, creating relationships between the various NPCs, and more, as well as details on the creation process for the adventure and the reasons for including the geomorphs.

Other Bits
The adventures includes a selection of new magic items, pages of stats for the various monsters the adventurers may encounter, and six pre-generated player characters (with character portraits). 

Writing
The writing in Meckwick's Challenge is strong from a technical standpoint - grammatically it's all correct for the most part, and the spelling is all correct. It's obvious that the designers edited their work very carefully, and it shows. It's clear that the designers took a lot of pride in putting this together, and well they should have. There are only a few minor typos that I caught, and that's very refreshing for what amounts to a self-published product.

Artwork
There's actually more art in this adventure than I would have thought given that, again, it's essentially a self-published product. All of the art is provided by Aaron Frost, who is also one of the authors of the adventure. Most of the drawings are black-and-white line drawings the do harken back a bit to the work from the early days of the hobby, but that's not meant as a criticism but rather as a feature. The NPC characters are well-proportioned and rendered, and have a some comic book style to them. I'm reminded of the style of someone like Jeff Dee when looking at those pictures. In other areas of the adventure, the style changes completely, such as on the cover and for the character portraits for the pre-generated PCs. For those characters, we get a bit more detail and some shading.

The maps are also provided by Frost, along with fellow co-writer Mundi King. These are all provided in a computer-generated style in grayscale. While they actually look good and, due to the computer-generation, have exactly correct proportions, sharp angles, etc., I actually felt like they just don't fit with the aesthetics of the rest of the adventure. There's nothing "wrong" with the maps - I just feel like the designers may have been better off creating them in whatever computer program they used first, then copying them in pen-and-ink to match the style of the art in the rest of the adventure.

The art on the various die templates, particularly the villains die, encounter die, and dungeon geomorphs, is very good.


Who Will Like It
Players and game masters of Adventures Dark & Deep should enjoy this adventure, as should any who regularly play OSR games. The adventure is well-written with well-crafted NPCs and creative encounter areas, and provides a lot of extra goodies in the form of the various die-templates and geomorphs as well as character portraits for pre-generated PCs that could actually be used by players for other adventures/games. The layout is easy to read with no overly complicated backgrounds. My minor quibbles relate to how the use of the various dice and geomorphs are explained at the beginning of the adventure. It's a bit confusing but could easily be fixed with a quick editorial once-over to make it a little easier to understand.

MECKWICK'S CHALLENGE
  • Format: 51-page PDF
  • Where to Buy: RPG Now or DriveThru RPG
  • Price: $4.50
  • System: Adventures Dark & Deep (but relatively system-neutral and can be used for pretty much any OSR type retro-clone)
  • More Information: Random Wizard's blog post on the release of Meckwick's Challenge

[Disclaimer: Daddy Rolled a 1 was provided with a review copy of this product.]

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Bear Republic "Race 5" IPA
Listening: "Renegades of Funk" by Rage Against the Machine

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this review. We struggled for a long time about how to make this adventure. You touched upon a topic that we went back and forth about concerning the "Advanced" play. We were originally going to present that near the beginning like you suggested. Originally, we were going to present the magical artifact as creating a "murder maze" like area, and then present a more story oriented approach at a later point.
    After a year of working on it, it surprises even myself how many different variations we thought about and debated. We really wanted to make an adventure that appealed to different styles of players and game masters. Of course, the danger with that is by trying to appeal to everyone, we end up not pleasing anyone.
    There are many ways to use the game mechanics we came up with. It can be confusing. In hindsight, I would rewrite the beginning to say, this is how to play without using any strange dice or mechanics... just draw a map, place the lair somewhere, place the special encounter right before the players reach the special lair.
    Thanks again for such a thorough review. Much appreciated.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for sending me the review copy. I really thought the concept and idea of using the different dice to have the players determine the course of the adventure was pretty neat. And I really liked the NPC descriptions and backgrounds. There's lots of neat fun things to like in this one.

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