Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nightmare indeed

One of the stupider things I do sometimes is buying adventure modules for games I don't own. Partly I do this because adventures can be adapted to other games (most supers modules work in most supers settings, frex) and partly because getting a module can be a cheaper way of evaluating a game line than buying the corebook. My latest acquisition in this vein is Nightmare Maze of Jigresh, published by Judges Guild and for use with Empire of the Petal Throne.

Yes, there really is a module called Rat On A Stick.Before I dig into Nightmare Maze let me take some time to talk about Judges Guild and EPT. Judges Guild of Decatur, Illinois was one of the first and definitely the most prolific of third party D&D publishers, but they also supported several other lines. The Guild published a lot of modules, supplements, and multiple periodicals. For a rundown of their product lines, check out the Judges Guild Codex. I've got a crapload of this stuff, mostly D&D/AD&D adventure modules, Traveller accessories, and most of the run of the Paul Jacquays-edited fanzine Dungeoneer. Then there's the unique items like Rat On A Stick (play monsters running a fast food stand in a dungeon), Field Guide to Encounters (a fantasy rpg with one of the weirdest monster lists I've ever seen), and First Fantasy Campaign (Dave Arneson's notes for his pre-D&D Blackmoor campaign). A lot of JG stuff is available today for cheap on the eBay or as reasonably priced PDFs over at DriveThruRPG.

Some of the Judge's Guild stuff was really outstanding. Many players of the era heap praise on the JG setting material centered around the City State of the Invincible Overlord. The City State material was sufficiently popular that Mayfair bought the rights and published an updated boxed set sometime in the late 80's. Some JG material made a comeback when 3rd edition D&D came out and dungeoneering was suddenly cool again. The classic dungeons Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia were upgraded to 3e standards and released by Necromancer Games. They followed this up with new versions of City State and Wilderlands of High Fantasy. Several old schoolers on RPGnet and elsewhere have gushed over the new Wilderlands boxed set. I think this would be a good point to quote RPGpundit on Wilderlands of High Fantasy:
Someone should contract an armed gang of Brazilian mercenaries, kidnap every other setting designer in the industry, sit them down in a dank poorly-lit room somewhere, and force them to read the whole fucking thing. Then have the guys who worked on it give them all indoctrination settings on how to do the same. NOTE TO SETTING DESIGNERS: This is how you create a "crunchy" setting, and this is exactly the sort of thing that settings should be doing today! Not more fucking feats and prestige classes, not limp-wristed in-game fiction; give us more books with 4000 fucking adventure ideas in them! Let the personality of the setting show in the actual adventure seeds, and let the adventure seeds be tied to places on the fucking map. Its so goddamned obvious it makes my ears bleed just considering that I actually have to spell it out to people.
But that's the new Judge's Guild stuff, let's get back to talking about the original Judge's Guild. Not everything they published back in the day was gold. In fact, they were kinda spotty. Gigi D'arn, the gossip columnist for Different Worlds magazine, once noted in her column that JG had finally decided to start asking for rewrites if manuscripts sucked. I can't quite tell if she was being straight or just snarky when she wrote that, but either way the implication is clear. And although I like the Guild's Traveller accessories, the adventures and sector data are not well liked by Trav fans. The D&D modules are in general a mixed bag of great ideas and terrible execution. Many of the maps published by JG were ugly and in some cases they were hard to interpret as well. Not that everything produced by their contemporary competition was gold. It's easy to be hard on JG because of the handful of real stinkers in their large catalog. Many similar 3rd party ventures died in obscurity because they couldn't produce even one product of comparable quality to the better works of Judge's Guild.


EPT box art
But let us move on to Empire of the Petal Throne. EPT is a strange old bird, one of the earliest roleplaying games published. EPT came out in '75, a year after the original D&D game hit the scene. Tekumel, the world of EPT, is the loving brainchild of Professor M.A.R. Barker. To understand the depth and grandiosity of Tekumel, imagine that Tolkien had cribbed from Aztecs and Ancient Egyptians instead of Medieval Europe. Furthermore, make ol' J.R.R. into a GM and game designer. That's M.A.R. Barker and Tekumel in a nutshell. In the world of gaming Tekumel has few rivals. The future history of Traveller approaches the scope and grandeur of Barker's world, as well as possibly Harn and Glorantha (the setting of RuneQuest). I don't know enough about the latter two to make a fair comparison.

The publishing history of Tekumel is as long and tortured as that of the various incarnations of Traveller or D&D, but Empire of the Petal Throne was where it all began. The premise was simple: take Barker's exciting and unique setting, tweak the then-nascent D&D rules to better fit Barker's world, and let loose the PCs as barbarians new to the titular Empire. Later Tekumel games got away from the barbarian outsiders premise, which to me was the best part. I'd love to play a Conan-esque PC running rampant over the stratified social norms of the Empire. As I understand it modern Tekumel players go to great lengths to insert their PC into the Petal Throne social scene via clan affiliations and postings to imperial legions and such.

You can get more detail on EPT from the RPG Museum entry on Empire. For more info Tekumel in general, check out the definitive Tekumel site. The most recent incarnation of Tekumel is the the tri-stat Tekumel rpg from Guardians of Order. You can also get reprints of old stuff (including the original rules published by TSR) from Tita's House of Games. Cool cover, eh?One of the things you can get from Tita is Nightmare Maze of Jigresh, the module I bought for cheap with a lot of old Traveller stuff. Most of Nightmare is typical of 70's era dungeons I've seen, a little bit of intro text, some rooms full of monsters and loot, a couple of new critters to spice things up, and not much else. The two new monsters are both undead, one of them effectively an undead stirge (great idea) and the other a fairly standard killer corpse. Excerpted for background purposes is the setting fluff from The Book of Ebon Bindings, a Tekumel demonology sourcebook I've often wanted to check out. The encounter area descriptions are pretty bare-bone, most of them are single lines of text like "2 Pe'Choi, hp 25, 20". It's not ideal for my crazy purposes, like adapting it to Encounter Critical, but I could make it work. Except for the map. Turns out that Nightmare Maze is one of those gimmick dungeons, where the poor sod who wrote it thought he was being clever by using a maze for his dungeon. As in the kind you use a pencil to work out in a kid's Rainy Day Adventure Funbook. Check it out:

Just looking at this map makes my balls hurt. What sort of sick, sadistic bastard do you have to be to inflict something like this upon hapless players? Glancing at this maze (that's the unlabeled player's map above, which they can only find a copy of deep within the bowels of the maze itself!) reminds me of the maze generator from Irony Games. You select one of four sizes for your random maze, "Quite boring", "Incredibly boring", "Justifiable homicide", or "Please, please, please don't!" and then click a button labeled "I hate my players' guts..." And the scale! Most of the corridors are a stifling 5' or less in width. In terms of practical play, you can achieve the whole 'maze' effect with a map that's a whole order of magnitude less complicated. Redoing the map is probably the only way to make this module workable, unless you really wanted the PCs to be lost in the maze for multiple sessions. That would be a good way to test the author's rather twisted insistence that a big focus of the GMs efforts ought to be tracking whether the PCs are starving to death or not. If that's your bag.

Don't get me wrong, Nightmare Maze of Jigresh isn't a total trainwreck. The author hung his hat on a gimmick that I don't like and that won't play in Peoria these days. Back in the heyday of the killer DMs something like the Nightmare Maze was probably more acceptable in some regions. But attitudes have changed and anyone trying to pull this crap nowadays would quickly find themselves a pariah in the gaming community. I suppose a different, less maniacal map would go a long way towards making Nightmare Maze less of a gimmick and more of an adventure. You could still get that maze effect with a tenth of the twisty passages.

I tried to find some more information about the author, but there's not much I can report. Michael Mayeau has a few other credits with JG: Survival of the Fittest, Operation Ogre, and Dragon Crown. I don't know much about those, except that Operation Ogre is still pretty easy to find. Tadashi over at the Different Worlds website will sell you a copy of Operation Ogre. That's who sold me my copy of Nightmare Maze.