Tuesday, February 13, 2018

AS&SH Roll20 Update and Rats in the Walls Review

My Roll20 campaign has had eleven sessions so far.  I posted recaps of our first session and another update after a few more sessions.  While I haven't felt like writing up session reports lately, I did want to write a review for the first official AS&SH module that I've inserted into our game, Jeff Talanian's Rats in the Walls.

The Party

We've had some changes in the party over the last half dozen sessions.  The player of Sheela, the Ranger, had to bow out for a while.  He recently had his first daughter and is understandably exhausted with that.  We picked up a couple new players.  I recruited one from the AS&SH forums, joining us as an Esquimaux Witch.  The latest addition is the judge of a Dungeon Crawl Classics game I attend monthly at my local game store.  He runs an exciting and relentless DCC game and I'm happy to turn the screen on him.

Badulf: Kimmerian Shaman, follower of Krimmer, level 1.
Ingolf: Viking Death Soldier, level 1.
Hogsalt: Kelt Berserker, follower of Yoon'Deh, level 1.
Nushniaq: Esquimaux Witch, follower of Kthulhu, level 1.
Naysho: Atlantean Scout, level 1.

Sheela: Amazonian Ranger, follower of Artemis, level 1.

Broad Recap

After their business at the Manse of Korrhil Xai, they returned to Swampgate and decided to look for the Black Moss Hag, with Ingolf and Nushniaq both hoping for training in their dark arts.  The witch agreed to mentor Nushniaq in return for him recovering a book owned by a wizard who had built a tower on a nearby hill.  He was long dead but there was a dungeon beneath his tower that hid is treasures.  The group ended up spending four game sessions exploring the dungeon, covering about half of the first and second levels.  They fought giant bats and giant toads, skeletons and zombies, daemon grubs and daemon-picts.  The zombies, in particular, gave them a good scare.  But they were able to recover the book, found a magic sword (they overcame one of the better puzzles I've devised to get this), made a tenuous alliance with some fishmen in an underground lagoon, and ultimately made it out without any deaths (well, Sheela's war dogs were killed and became zombie war dogs).  They decided to return to Swampgate to resupply, where they found the taproom of their inn overcrowded with sailors and fishermen who reported the Rivermen's Tavern to be having a rat problem.  They also heard from an old friend of a possible employment opportunity worth a fortune in the City-State of Yithorium.  They agreed to make preparations for that journey, expected to take a couple months journey including both land and sea.  But first, they'd deal with this rat problem.

Rats in the Walls Review

Spoilers follow.

This is an adventure for 4-6 characters of 1st through 2nd level.  I could not find it available in print anywhere, checking OBS, Lulu, and the official AS&SH store.  I got it in pdf from RPGNow for $4.29.  It is 14 pages long, written by Jeff Talanian, and features art by Ian Baggley.  From the back:
In the City-State of Khromarium, a dockside tavern called the Silvery Eel is plagued by rats of a most unusual breed.  These abominable rodents have ruined the tavern keeper's business and his life.  The man is desperate, and he offers a substantial reward for the elimination of his horrific problem.
I always like reading adventures written by the author of a game system.  It can offer a great insight into how the author intends his game to be played.  In the case of AS&SH, it also helps to expand on the feeling of the Hyperborea setting.  The introduction text is brief but paints a sufficient scene of Khromarium and the dockside tavern, the Silvery Eel.  Jeff has a distinctive writing style and provides enough background and characterization (there are only 3 NPCs in the adventure) to make the simple setup easy to run.

Speaking of simple setups, this adventure is exactly what it sounds like.  A tavern with giant rats in the basement.  The most cliche adventure trope in existence.  It takes a certain audacity to write that in 2014.  Then again, I've never actually sent adventurers into a tavern cellar to smack giant rats.  There was something oddly fun about doing so.

The tavern and its dungeon include 11 rooms total, with 6 of those being the tavern and the upstairs bedrooms.  My group did not bother to go poking through the innkeeper and his daughter's rooms, so that was 3 rooms unseen.  The adventure doesn't really offer much motivation that they would, so I would expect most people to use only the 8 rooms.  Getting into the dungeon proper does require finding a secret door, but the description of the place being riddled with rat holes naturally prompts a lot of searching, and with new rats pouring out randomly to attack, tension is high from the start.

Below ground the rats in the cellar take a different turn. A temple with evidence of human sacrifice, a pair of secret chambers, and a row of cells below.  I appreciated the deity in the temple being Aurorus, rather than a more obviously evil deity like Thaumagorga or Xathoqqua.  Hyperborea is not a nice place, so even the shining gods require sacrifice.

The secrets in the dungeon are concealed by floor to ceiling curtains, which every player knows to look behind, so mine had no trouble with these.  A skeleton ambush was the roughest fight of the dungeon, but a daemon summoning chamber provided context for the giant rats crawling up from below.  Otherwise than the skeleton guards, all enemies in this dungeon are giant rats.  My players had recently acquired a large amount of Greek fire and decided to forgo whatever treasure might be found in the heaps of debris and just torch it all to be safe, so it they avoided most combat until the finale in the cells.  The monster there is fantastic.  Both Jeff's description of the scene and Ian's illustration serve to create a chilling and grotesque ending.

Final Thoughts

It's as basic an adventure as there is, but it works and my group had a lot of fun with it.  It provides just enough extra flavor to make it more than its premise, and being a very confined location it is easy to put into any setting (I moved it to from Khromarium to Swampgate, but it could be taken out of Hyperborea entirely).  My biggest knock on the adventure is that, being inspired by the Lovecraft story of the same name, it doesn't really hit the same themes.  A larger underground complex and more revelations of a dark family history would have improved it.  Since the current owner of the tavern has nothing to do with the temple underground or its cells and human sacrifice, clearing it out just meant it could seal it up and forget about it.  The adventure could have been more haunting by hewing closer to Lovecraft, but it's a fun romp regardless.

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