Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review: Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 1: Mirror of the Fire Demon

Full disclosure: I was a playtester for this adventure when it was in development, and I'm a credited playtester in the book. I was comp'ed the book, I didn't purchase it. I'm also a lot biased when it comes to GURPS in general and Dungeon Fantasy in particular, as I wrote for both GURPS in general and Dungeon Fantasy in specific. I still think I can fairly asses the strengths and weaknesses of this particular publication, so I'm reviewing it here. If you want a review from someone who isn't associated with SJG in any way, you will have to look elsewhere - and when they come online I'll edit this and link to them here.

Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 1: Mirror of the Fire Demon
by Matt Riggsby
50 pages including the cover and credits but not the back e23 advertisement

Mirror of the Fire Demon is the first official adventure for SJG's GURPS Dungeon Fantasy line. The DF line is basically GURPS distilled down to a pre-selected group of options aimed at simulation old-school dungeon bashing. Pretty much, this adventure has you start in town on the fringe of a region threatened by a huge hoard. You go find an oracle to locate the Fire Demon who's organizing the horde, then go after his magical mirror to defeat him. And then loot him, because this is DF, and adventuring is about money. Oh, and rival adventuring groups are out there, and they range in motivation from cheap greed to noble motives, and treat you in varying ways if you run into them. All of this is set in the scenic and lovely Devouring Lands, which is a damn fine place to go kill stuff.

As an adventure, it's both pretty linear and really non-linear. Linear traits: You start at A - town, go to B - the oracle, and end up at C - the lair-sized dungeon. Non-Linear traits: You can wander around all you want, you don't actually need the oracle, you don't actually even have to go to C if you prefer to let someone else win the day and then whack them for the money, and that's discounting the pointless "don't bother with the adventure at all" alternative.

There are lots of little bits in the adventure I like:

- Wandering monsters, wandering adventurers (the rivals mentioned above), and hostile terrain - any or all of which can show up at once. All three are on one table, given a good example of how to assemble a mixed encounter tables. Old TSR modules often had wandering monsters, but random hostile terrain or rivals? Not often.

- another random treasure table, with full price and weight and game rules for the stuff on it. And a short but handy bit of text on treasure to help you place it appropriately.

- 7 wilderness hex maps, scaled for 25mm minis, that you can use alone or print out, cut out, and assembled into pre-made battlemats. Everything on them is statted out, from the DR a tree gives you to the damage from knife grass.

- a whole mess of new monsters, generic fodder monsters (orcs, especially), and pre-made NPCs (who make great pregens and rivals alike).

- highlighted skill call-outs. It's easy to scan the text and find what you need by which skills are involved, and what skills are needed for a given situation. This duplicates DF2, so it fits into the whole DF line style. With that and GURPS's easy default progressions, you can handle both experienced PCs and guys taking a crack it it.

and my favorite: the concept of "N" monsters.

N Monsters One thing DFA1 does to scale the adventure is provide encounters in terms of N monsters. "N" is the number of PCs. So encounters might be like "N orcs plus N/2 orc brutes plus 1 demon" or something like that. N also covers points above the starting norm, so you can make this a higher level adventure pretty easily.

One thing I think this does well is it lets you scale up the adventure to higher powered delvers, or scale it down, or use it for big parties or small and provide the challenge the author expected. Whether this is good or bad depends on the GM's style, and how you implement it. Some old school GMs will pshaw at the very concept of scaling - you should place the monsters and if it's easy because 10 x 300 point delvers showed up instead of 2 x 250, well, that's fine, and vice-versa. Others might want to scale continuously, so if those 10 delvers get whittled down to 5, then the difficulty scales down. Others might scale once and then let it go from there. But it's GURPS, which means there is explicit support for doing it your way - and N lets you make this decision out of the box, even if you've never run a GURPS DF game before. That's pretty good beginner adventure support right there.

One piece of advice I'd personally ignore is the idea of scaling up if the party gets allies - I'd prefer to set the scaling based on the original group, and if they gain or lose party members on the way, or recruit an NPC group into helping them, or otherwise skew the odds, just let the chips fall where they may. I figure that both scales the challenge appropriately and lets the PCs wheedle out advantages in play and take advantage of them. But I like the idea that if you roll up Rival Party B and also Wandering Orcs, you add up the party and Rival Party B to figure out how many orcs show up. Maybe that's potentially later-generation-game "bad scaling" to some, but me it says "three way battle royale." Heh.

The adventure also does a great job of explain why the bits are there, what happens if they are skipped or avoided, and how to segue past them (or work them in). It's covered with hooks to help a new GM fit the whole adventure together seamlessly. Old hands might ignore them but could easily benefit from insight into how Matt Riggsby puts together adventures, at least.

The adventure also does a great job, IMO, of doing what GURPS does best - providing options. It provides a lot of options for ways to run the adventure - moving the locale, setting up the PCs as the horde monsters instead of the adventurers, dealing with high-tech adventurers, etc., etc. It's amusing to think of how easy it is to chuck some high tech firepower into DF (ray guns and fantasy go back ages together) or just throw some high-tech folks into this scenario. "Defeat the demon, then use his mirror to return to Earth . . . " - all with no rules changes needed.

One thing the adventure either stands up on - or falls down on - is the lack of detail on the Big Bad and his Big Bad Magic Item. To me, this is classic old school. Er, who the hell was Tsojcanth again? I'm not sure, but I've plundered his lost caverns. How about the name of the Castellan in the keep? Er, never given. Well, DFA1 doesn't give you much, either. This is clearly deliberate, because it's expected you'll fill that in yourself. But people expecting setting as much as adventure might be let down a bit.

How is it for other game systems? Usually I'll tell you how a non-GURPS book is for GURPS. Here it's the reverse: how is this for non-GURPS systems?

Not bad. A good portion of the pages are dedicated to GURPS-statted NPCs and monsters, true. But the adventure itself is a straightforward adaptation. You already know what orcs and ogres are, so just use stats from your own system. A good number of the monsters are only described in Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons, however. A full 20 pages are devoted to the rival NPCs and new monsters, so factor that in if it's the adventure you are after and expect to ignore the GURPS rules in the process.

That said, it's a good example of a series of set pieces put together without a railroad. And if you add an area map instead of leaving it more vague like DFA1 does, it's pretty sandboxy.

Content: 5
out of 5. A complete GURPS adventure, with all you need to run it and lots and lots to steal for other adventures.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Nice art, well written, well organized. But for all that, I'm picky and I'd like to have seen more art and a pretty area map.

Overall: If you're thinking of giving GURPS a try for dungeon adventuring/old school plundering type play, this is a great place to start. More experienced GURPS GMs will love the tables, maps, N monsters scaling, and hordes of useful monster and NPC stats. It's pretty well loaded and it's well done. Highly recommended for beginning GURPS GMs, and the pre-statted NPCs and monsters will be enough to justify the price to experienced one. Folks playing non-GURPS games will find things to like here, too.

Editing later: The author put up a "Designer's Notes" post on the SJG forums.

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