Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Augury - The Lost City


 

The Lost City reminds me why I tend to associate D&D 4th with missed opportunities. Just to remember: I do like D&D 4th, what really makes mad is the way the game has been handled. Since its original release, the policy behind the marketing and the release schedule of D&D appears to be targeted at alienating its player base (it certainly alienated me). Every time when I believe we’ll finally see interesting books (like the Nenthir Vale sourcebook), WotC suddenly pull things off and goes back to their “veiled agenda” method (that doesn’t inspire lots of trust). This small (and, I promise, soon to be concluded) rant is because I think that one of the foremost problems of D&D 4th is its lack of iconic settings and modules – yeah, adventures. This new edition didn’t got its Eberron – by that I mean a setting mechanically tailored to show and develop the game’s key features. To make things worse, D&D 4th doesn’t have good adventures. I admit that I played only 3 official adventures so far but I also spent I good time reading reviews of modules that I wanted to buy but soon gave up because they’re either bland or just a series of linked combat encounter and disconnected skill challenges.

But this is a review… in particular a review about a sandbox D&D 4th module for paragon characters of level 14 to 17.

I admit not knowing if the 4th Edition is a good paradigm for good old-fashioned sandbox settings. While sandboxes appear to work fine with Pathfinder, it gets hard to organize things on the spot due to the game’s complex creature stats (that’s why, after all, I came up with this weird house system for monsters). At least in this aspect, D&D 4th trumps Pathfinder easily in my opinion, especially if you use the famous “Page 42” rule from the Dungeon Master Guide (that’s something I think could also work for Pathfinder).

The Lost City has a delicious and classical premise: the famous lost desert city, the last legacy of an ancient and advanced civilization, now sunken below the sands. It’s all a great homage to Dungeon Module B4 (even the name). However, Open Design’s product is its own beast. The sunken city of Kadralhu was actually a flying city inhabited by giants and their reptilian servants – the Oklu. Oh, and this flying city is powered by a sleeping goddess. So far, The Lost City is made of pure awesomeness.

Physically speaking The Lost City is a soft-cover with 93 pages. The cover is a beautiful colored art by Kieran Yanner, while the interior is B&W, with a grey background and a two-columned text. The B&W art is also well done and reinforces the book’s flavor (specially the Oklu’s illustrations).

The first chapters deals with Kadralhu’s history and its factions – surviving giants, undead giants, the Oklu, inevitables, big and intelligent larva-infecting insects and the goddess Kaima herself; all with their own conflicting interests. This approach is perfect for a sandbox setting and the history, while linked to the Midgard setting, is extremely ease to adapt to any desert of any world. Next topic is hooks for the adventurers and the most important artifacts of Kadralhu; and don’t forget basecamps for the heroes, like the classic small village closer to the ruins.

The next chapters are each devoted to a specific region of the sunken city. The first area is the Phoenix Tower (the suggested point of entry). The Lost City doesn’t use the official WotC layout for encounter, which is a bless if you ask me. The entire book reads in a clear and organic way than the official adventures of D&D.

One of The Lost City’s most exotic settings is the Hanging Gardens, created when a part of the flying city fell upside-down in a local gorge. Unfortunately we don’t have many terrain features here, besides the inspired description.

We also get a full chapter for the Oklu. A race of reptoid servants, the Oklu give excellent opportunities for some pretty weird roleplaying scenes, as their artificial instincts encourage the race to simulate the behavior of other intelligent creatures that interact with them. Suddenly, the player character can come face-to-face with an entire “clone Oklu party”. This isn’t necessarily bad, as there’s a good chance that these Oklu will help the group by emulating them. The Oklu are a nice and distinctive touch.

By the time the party reaches Kadralhu’s heart, things start to move forward on a more step pace. At this point, The Lost City loses some of its sandbox characteristics and starts to sound like a conventional module. This doesn’t mean the book fails to provide a good adventure, quite the contrary, but this fact may go against the aesthetics of those that wanted a “pure” sandbox. To let things clear: The Lost City has a definitive end, how the party gets there and allied with whom is the great question of this adventure. Do not be mistaken, this setting gives an amazing freedom of action to the players. In certain ways The Lost City is a sincere and honorable attempt to marry Old School premises with plot-driven adventure paths. In this regard, it’s succeeds perfectly. In fact, I believe that adventures like The Lost City and Courts of the Shadow Fey are exactly the type of module that the 4th needs to show its strengths.