Friday, 15 June 2012

The Grinding Gear: review

(Thanks to Daddy Grognard for the image)
Last night I ran the third and final part of James Raggi's "The Grinding Gear".

Some spoilers follow, so if you think you might play this adventure at some point, it's advisable to not read any further in case you spoil the surprises for yourself.

Despite James' advice that the module should be played in one single session if possible (and we did try!), we ended up playing the adventure in three parts, due to real world time constraints.

In the first session a small group of three adventurers explored the abandoned inn and the surrounding buildings in great detail, and ended up finding the entrance to the dungeon. The second session saw a large group of six PCs delving into the dungeon, making their way through the 1st level and finding the entrance to the 2nd. Last night's session concluded the adventure -- they found their way to the end of the 2nd level of the dungeon, and managed to escape with their lives (and some small amount of treasure).

The three sessions totalled about 20 hours of play. Admittedly, the first session involved about an hour of introduction, explaining the basic rules to a new player, and equipment buying for the others, as did the second session when two new players joined us. Nonetheless, even subtracting this "setup" time and time we took for breaks, the adventure itself must have taken us a good 16 hours to play through. Therein lies its biggest flaw, in my opinion; but I'll come to that later.

Overall I have to say I was very impressed with this adventure, and really enjoyed running it. For referees who like to present a challenging and mysterious environment and enjoy watching their players trying to puzzle it out (and knowing that there really is a rationale behind it all!), this module is a real treat.

I loved the background premise, of a trap-filled tomb designed by a devious engineer and tinker with a love / hate relationship with adventurers. My players never quite worked out what the "point" of the dungeon was, i.e. that it had been expressly designed to punish the foolish or rash, and to reward the clever and methodical, but they got a very clear feeling that there was a deliberate intelligence behind everything they were encountering, and indeed were constantly on their toes, expecting to encounter the dungeon's "caretaker" at any moment.

The pace of the adventure is very slow, encouraging a savouring of small details and the pervading sense of malice and mystery. It rewards in-depth exploration of even areas which at first appear to be meaningless. For example, even for a group who were to figure out early on how to get into the tomb, exploration of the apparently empty and abandoned surface area is essential. Fortunately for them, my group didn't explore the statue hiding the dungeon entrance until last, being put off by the pile of dead bodies around it, and went over the abandoned inn buildings in great detail. I dread to imagine the fate of a party who were to go straight for the statue and simply jump head first into the dungeon!

Some highlights of running the module for me were:
  • The revelation that the PCs were trapped, at the point where, after exploring every inch of the 2nd level which was shown on the fake map, they decided to head back to the surface to rest. This really had impact, especially as it dawned on them that they didn't have much water with them (and then they realised why I'd been mentioning all along when they felt hungry, and making them cross off rations and water supplies).
  • That they ignored the organ trap, going straight through the door without touching the instrument, only to return and end up activating several of its nasty side-effects by playing random tunes on it.
  • Their realisation, upon reaching the first of the real electrocuting cage puzzles, that they had no memory of the landlord's wife's name (I'd even shown them a little handout of the smashed funeral urn twice!). In the end they managed to work out her name by trial and error, "hangman" style, which surprised me -- I really thought that would be their end.
  • That they fell for the final trick -- a heavily armoured fighter leapt into the sarcophagus, smashing its precious contents. The evil DM part of me was extremely pleased by this. At this point the first line of James' introduction rang true -- "is it OK to have a reasonable expectation for failure in a fantasy role-playing adventure?". Sure, the PCs escaped with their lives (which was looking like a far from certain proposition at several points), and took a small quantity of valuables with them, but they clearly understood that a rash action had robbed them of the tomb's principal reward.
So, all in all, a thoroughly enjoyable module to run.

The only flaw of the module as written, I feel, is that it's just unrealistic to run it in a single session as is advised, and that it's unfair to stretch it out over several. As I mentioned above, it took us about 16 hours altogether to play through it, and I really can't imagine how it'd be possible to play through it in a single session -- even a whole day session of 8 or so hours (which is what I'd originally arranged).

Given that rushing the adventure -- especially the apparently uninteresting early parts -- would also be unfair, this leaves me slightly unsure of how to remedy this problem. For those of high constitution, an all-nighter or all-weekender would work well, but me and most of my players don't have the time or energy for such intense bouts of RPGing.

I'd be truly interested to hear if anyone has actually run this module in a single session. The introduction implies that at least the author did!

So, in conclusion, two points:

Firstly, this module presents a very special type of adventure which one would seldom create on ones own, and in that sense I would wholeheartedly recommend other referees to purchase it.

However, while we got a great deal of enjoyment from the module, personally I don't feel like I'd run it again as written. More likely I'd try to come up with a shorter adventure of my own with the same premise -- one that could really be played through in a single session.

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