Friday, December 9, 2016

Review: H2 The Mines of Bloodstone

This is one of my occasional looks back on old gaming items I picked up and/or played back in the day.

For my consolidated list of reviews, please see my reviews page.

by Michael Dobson and Douglas Niles
Released 1986 by TSR
48 pages + cover and pull-out map.
$4.99 in PDF

H2 The Mines of Bloodstone is the middle part in the high-level, dungeons-and-Battlesystem combination Bloodstone adventure series. It is preceded by H1 Bloodstone Pass and followed by H3 The Bloodstone Wars and eventually by the infamous H4 Throne of Bloodstone, for levels 18-100. I'll get to those soon.

The adventure takes place after the victory of the PCs over an army of evil-led bandits in H1 Bloodstone Pass. Here they PCs need to deal with the remnants of the evil they defeated, and with a a new wellspring of evil. They need to find its source - it's pretty obviously the mines - and destroy it. Since it's aimed at 14-18th level characters, and it's a Battlesystem module, this means powerful evil with army-sized groups of minions.

There are some very usable bits to this adventure. However, there is a lot of just boring, repetitive material. Lots of rooms that are basically boxed text, GM text, monster, treasure. On the plus side, there isn't a lot of wasted to text to vanilla encounters. On the minus side, a lot of encounters feel like vanilla encounters. Just HP to whittle down, nothing to gain or lose by doing anything but that. They're generally just big numbers - 20, 30, 40, even 100 to 150 of something to fight. They'll provide useful attrition to a high-level party, but they aren't interesting in an of themselves. A lot of it seems to be solving the problem of "How do you challenge high level guys?" with "Add a 0 to the end of the number encountered and give them all magic weapons or make them immune to their normal weakness."

There is a lot of save-or-die and clued encounters with deadly threats. Many of these seem a little overdone, though. There is a chance at contracting a magical disease, there is no save if you come in contact, it's game-ending, and the module states that "only a wish, maybe" can fix it. Seems a bit harsh. Most of these challenges, however, can be detected with good play, and a cautious and thorough group of experienced players should be able to handle them.

There are some excellent set-piece encounters, such as the one near the bottom of the initial mines. The source of evil in the mines - Orcus, as is totally obvious from the cover - is shielded by an army and a series of tests. The "tests" are rooms that challenge specific aspects of characters. Some are very interesting. Others are just plain mechanical - make some saving throws, move on. Still more are just nasty fights.

The final set-piece is well done, and it's not overdone with boxed text or "cut-scene" aspects. It's just a straight-up race against time, with the usual module conceit of having the clock start only after the PCs arrive.

The army is dealt with either by sneaking around (good luck, they use a massive amount of continuous magic to prevent that) or recruiting allies and fighting a set-piece battle. The latter is what's strongly pushed - again, the H-series is a Battlesystem series. So if you want to fight in a huge battle in a giant cavern in the Underdark, this is for you. It's kind of odd, actually, that Underdark armies aren't fighting skirmishes and raids and occasional invasions but fight in ranked formtions over roads and rises (albeit roofed ones). It feels like a bit of a failure of imagination to just swap in "mushrooms" for "forest" and deep dwellers for surface dwellers.

Little niggles? The entrances to the mines are 15' wide unless the map says otherwise. The map has squares with no scale. So are they 15' squares or 10' or something else? There is a shaft from the upper area of the isometric map to the lower level, but it's not clear where it actually connects.

Bigger niggles? The treasures match the monsters in terms of vanilla. Many of them just have big dollops of treasure - a quarter-million here, and an assortment of gold, platinum, gems, and magic items here. There are a lot of magic items handed out. I'm not sure if this is to make up for the very magic-poor pregens (and the magic-poor PCs, if you follow H1 and H2's setup, which is "you lost it all and are refugees.") The treasure is generally vanilla - "8,000 pp, 15,000 gp, several expensive necklaces worth a total of 10,000 gp [. . . ]" Okay, I like simple and direct, but everything is big round numbers and no detail.

There is also some deliberate silliness that falls flat. The halfling village? It's paved with a corkscrewing road of yellow bricks that curls to the center of town. Sigh. And while a lady in a lake handing out swords is very Arthurian, it's just odd - why is that lake in an evil-ridden dungeon? Probably because they want to make sure someone has one of those swords.

What bothered me the most about this adventure was the rules changes - or maybe they're just errors. The Pregens are a perfect example. The 16th ranger is specialized in the bow, double-specialized in the longsword, and specialized in the throwing axe. That violates the rules in Unearthed Arcana, p. 18, or at least tosses the part about "one weapon" and choosing that one weapon at character generation. The bard is double-specialized in the longsword and dagger and throwing dagger - that's 9 proficiency slots right there, but as a former 8th level fighter he only has 6 - his other classes give him some, but specialization is a fighter ability so that's pretty bogus. If these were deliberate changes for high-level play, it might fly (although it wouldn't be a great idea based on my own experience) - but it's not stated, it's just done. They're designed like rules lawyers parsed out the wording to get the most bonuses they could. The same characters are in H1, but lack all of this, and simply follow the rules as written. In H3, this would continue.

The wizard has sage abilities in magic, legends and lore, and magic item identification - just free throw-ins. The module literally assumes he (and apparently your PCs, too) identifies all magic items on sight - a room's treasure with items that are new in Unearthed Arcana actually says this:

"(These last four magical items are from Unearthed Arcana. Describe them in ordinary terms - "two potion bottles, a rod and a set of bracers" - and let the players discover their properties." (p. 27)

Yes, describe them in ordinary terms and let the players discover their properties - that's how we do it for all items, not just ones from new books. Aargh!

There are two new monsters - the steeder, a spider-steed with an uninspired name (Spider + Steed - Spid = Steeder?) that's mostly added to have cavalry with a special ability, and an underground-boring menace, the stone-eater. The stone-eater is listed as having 30-100 HD, which just feels a little excessive for 1st edition AD&D.

How is it for GURPS?

Adaptable, but it places so much emphasis on very large fights (12 of these, 150 of those, 24 of these attacking by surprise at range) that don't do well with a more lethal combat system. Still, conceptually it's sound and could be adapted to a solid adventure.

Overall: I don't love this adventure. It's bare-bones enough that a GM could do a lot with it, and it wouldn't get in the way of a good group and a good GM. It's got everything you need to run the game. It hands out a lot of magical treasure, simply piles on foes, and doesn't give you a lot to work with in many situations. It's just uninspired where other high-end adventures (WG6 Isle of the Ape, D3 Vault of the Drow, Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits) are more exciting and interesting. I'd play it or run it, but the GM and group need to bring more to it. And leave the advice on magic item identification and the pregens at home.

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