Saturday, 13 August 2016
RPGPundit Reviews: DCC's The 998th Conclave of Wizards
This is a review of the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, "The 998th Conclave of Wizards", which is listed as #88 in the DCC adventures series, and is described as an adventure for Level 6 DCC characters. If you've played a lot of DCC, you'll know that this makes it a very high-level adventure by DCC standards (DCC levels go from 0-10, and a 6th level character is way more powerful in DCC than in regular D&D; in 4 years of running my DCC campaign, only 3 or 4 characters in that game have ever made it to that level).The adventure was written by Jobe Bittman, and is published by Goodman Games.
As usual, I'm reviewing the print edition of the game, which is a 46-page stapled softcover. It has a tough-looking glossy cover, which is described as the "sketch cover variant". The cover does indeed look like sketch, but it is a very detailed monochromatic sketch that wraps around the front and back cover, depicting a couple of dozen wizards of all different (mostly gonzo) appearance. It's a very evocative cover, slightly humorous without being totally silly, showing wizards that run the gamut from classic to totally weird (one of them is some kind of robot, and another appears to be a grey alien); and they totally give the impression of 'these are powerful high-level wizards', while also impressing the aesthetic style of DCC play.
The interior is black and white and contains a good amount of artwork, mostly more character sketches and impressive maps and floorplans of use in the adventure.
As usual with adventures, I'm going to be kind of careful in how I review it so as not to give anything away. In a very brief sense of overview, this adventure starts with any wizard or elf in the group receiving an enigmatic invitation to join the aforementioned Wizard's Conclave, which promises a potential membership in an order called the Star Cabal. The message itself contains clues meant to guide the PCs to travel at a certain date to an island where they will have to pass a test of worthiness to earn the right to travel to the Conclave. After that, there's a rocketship, alien planets, a city on an asteroid, dangerous robot-police, and a mystery involving a missing wizard. And more trials to gain membership in the cabal.
The adventure does have a couple of parts that are mildly railroady, things you can't really have much of a choice about if you want the adventure to move forward, but it also has parts where the path and order of PC activities is quite open. Of course, I could see my particular DCC campaign group making an epic clusterfuck of the premise, probably leaving the whole place in ruins. But maybe that's just me.
Other highlites of the adventure include a very interesting magical justice system, some high-tech elements (though not nearly as much as I think this adventure could have made use of), and we find out what happened to the brains of some of the iconic casters who have DCC spells named after them!
There's also some good encounter and loot tables and a lot of weird details of a techno+magic high-fantasy city. Along with some alien-generation tables that are fairly good. There's also an expanded and tweaked set of "Spell Duel" rules meant to supplant the ones in the main DCC book.
Among the downsides, the parts of the text meant to be read out to the players is written in a very thick prose, that I would imagine the author intended to be pseudo-Gygaxian. If I read this stuff out loud to my players, they'd laugh in my face; and there's way too much of it. I think it's usually a lot better to leave the specifics of how to reveal plot elements up to the GM, rather than force-feed them soliloquies.
There's also a kind of clash between the descriptions given of the Star Cabal wizards in the text, and some of their illustrations; one, for example, is described as a one-eyed creature, but then his illustration shows what appears to be a fat two-eyed human.
There's some other odd elements to this adventure as well. It's not really a full-blown sandbox, as I mentioned, and yet two of the central plot elements of the adventure are handled rather oddly. The 'mystery' element is left very undefined (that is, a variety of options are presented to the GM or we're told the GM can come up with something for themselves). I think the intention was to avoid railroading, but it comes out more as being kind of disinterested. The other is the climax of the adventure, which ends up being kind of short, and interesting but a bit simplistic, and even a bit tacked-on. In fact, the writer suggests the GM can just supplant the final encounter with something else if they like.
So I think some people might look at this and feel as though the writer was dialing it in. I don't think that was quite it. I think it was that the writer wanted to keep things open for adaptability's sake. More importantly, I think he made the climax feel unimportant because to him it is in fact less important. The real thing the designer cared about in this adventure wasn't the action so much as the weirdness of the middle part of the adventure: the asteroids and aliens and robots and crazy cast of scheming wizards. That is the meat of the adventure and where the real effort shines through.
All this ends up making the adventure feel less like an action/adventure or even a mystery, and a lot more like a Gonzo Picaresque. The point is to go to this weird place and meet this weird group of people. If the reader is into it, it'll seem good. If the reader was looking for a more conventional adventure, they're likely to feel disappointed.
For my part, I quite liked it. And more importantly, there was material in the book I felt I could make use of, whether or not I end up running the adventure. For me, when it comes to DCC material, that's maybe the most important thing.
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