14 April 2020

An Initial Look at The Halls of Arden Vul

First, I want to make clear that this is not a review.  A review means in-depth analysis, not a flip through its pages combined with surface impressions, which is what I'm going to give you.  Famed punk rock band Tenfootpole claims to be working on a proper review, and it will be far more thorough than this in the ways that matter.  I just wanted to give a bit more info than the usual publisher previews (though some of what's below is preview material), and in doing so start breaking down the material for my own understanding.

Basic Content

I'm sure you know what this is at this point: a 1,120-page megadungeon, in five volumes.  Volumes 1-3 are adventure content, while volume 4 is all the new ancillary stuff: 149 New Monsters, 332 New Magic Items, 69 New Technological Items, 44 New Spells.  Volume 5 contains the maps.

The text uses 10-pt Minion Pro, with spells and items separated out in a font reminiscent of 1st edition's Futura.  Layout is at once clean and stuffed.  Select use of bolding and whitespace means it's navigable, but of course you don't get 1,100+ pages in without a shitton of text.  In short, it could use more whitespace, but I figure even a half-point font increase would increase the page count by 10%.  So let's call it making the best of the situation.

One of the pieces I particularly like
Art is what you'd expect for the most part in an OSR project: classic black and white line art.  There are some nice full-pagers once in a while as you can see.  Overall, I have to admit that while art is important to me for my own projects, I rarely care about it in others so I'm not the best arbiter here.  I would only point out that with 1,100+ pages of content, art is going to be sparse.  I'd guess you're getting a piece on average about every 4-5 pages or so.  Most of it is new to my eyes, and so illustrates the dungeon rather than just filling space, though there are the occasional William McAusland and Dean Spencer stock art filler pieces.

Introductory Material

So what is it, exactly?  It's a lost city, long ago torn apart by civil war. It's broadly intended for 1st edition: you've got your nine-axis alignment on NPCs, 1st ed spells, etc.  It uses the OGL and OSRIC licenses.

And another.
The intended level range is for PCs of levels 1 to 12.  It has two different levels intended to start 1st level PCs off.  There's a table on p. 12 that shows dungeon level to PC level pair-ups.

There's a backstory, of course: I'd call it brief for 1,100+ pages.  For all that the OSR tends to hate backstory, you do need some of it to help the DM provide appropriate answers, especially for stuff like divination magic. Here it's especially important in order to make sense of the numerous factions, which I'll get to shortly.  There's a giant timeline as well, though this is clearly just for reference.

Design Principle: I always appreciate a section devoted to this, so long as the designer has something worth saying.  This one tells us we've got over 2,000 keyed encounter areas over 25 levels.  It also gives this useful bit:

the product is self-referential in numerous subtle ways. This means that actions taken by adventurers [on] one level can and will affect their adventures elsewhere in the Halls, sometimes in ways that they may not even realize. We have provided numerous cross-references which the GM can use to help keep track of how foolish or clever actions in one place might affect actions taken elsewhere. In this sense, the Halls are a living place, and the adventurers only one of many inputs that affect how the site evolves and changes.
This is key, as one of the more mockable dungeon design tropes is the monsters walled up in their individual cells, with no existence except to wait for the blessed day when the players throw open their door.  From what I've seen, the encounters often do have their own lives, moving about on their own and performing actions based on the existing dungeon denizens.  Based on my reading so far, the dungeon certainly holds up to the statement above.

General Construction Features: I think all dungeons should have these, as they affect basic flavour text but also how the dungeon reacts to certain spells, such as stone shape.  What's interesting here is that many of the factions within have done some of their own building, and so they have their own construction foibles.  Much of this here is fluff, but it does give you default door size and construction, whether they're locked or not, ceiling height.  I'd call it overly detailed, but its heart is in the right place.

The dungeon level to PC level pairing table, along with a shot of the Construction Features

Investigative Info: There's an allowance for sages or other NPCs in the wider world knowing about certain key dungeon areas, a nice touch that begins the process of imprinting the dungeon on your world.  It breaks these up by obscurity, although ultimately you're left to decide what differentiates the spread of knowledge on a "rare" location vs an "esoteric" location.  This is essentially an alternate-format rumour table, in that for each location there's what anyone who knows something would know, and then how accurate that info actually is.

Beyond that, we have a two different 100-entry rumour tables, one for adventurers and other folk that have been there, the other with historical-type information.  They both have your standard true or false natures.  These are good rumours too, with some mixed truth and falsehoods.  For example:

The Great Chasm is an important route to the lower levels (T). Or so my sources said. The problem? A tribe of trolls lives in the chasm (F). They ride on top of tamed giant spiders so they can scamper up and down the chasm walls (F).

Faction Table: 12 major factions, each with different relations to the others, ranging from not knowing who they are to hatred to neutrality to fondness to fear.  You then get about 20 pages to break this all down in detail.

Hooks: You get some standard stuff in this regard: missing person, missing thingymabob.  Then there's bits like get through a particular set of doors, or infiltrate a cult in the dungeon.  There's a good mix of fetch quests and exploration here.  There's even a table here on pp. 53-54 that shows all the captives you could rescue, who would want them back, and where they are.

There's a section offering apologetics for its unabashed usage of tech once in a while, a la Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.  It also offers ways to reskin the tech stuff for fantasy purists.  However, by and large this is a trad fantasy dungeon, not a tech-based one: this stuff is largely the province of just one of the twelve factions.  I do appreciate the designer flexibility of realizing some people are a little more insistent on their genre barriers, though.

The exception, rather than the rule

Adventuring Content

And so here we are: page 60 and we're at last ready to get underway with adventuring content.

First you have the outlying valley, the approaches to the dungeon.  This gives you stuff like village names and locations, fortifications nearby, natural features, local authorities. The surface of the ruined city has been deliberately left vague, so if you want to play there, you need to do some of the work yourself.  However, there is still two dozen pages of material for the surface, including some keyed areas and a few tables for encounters and goodies.

Okay, at this point we've in what we expect to see in a megadungeon, namely the actual dungeons.   The dungeon itself starts on p. 81.  Let's do a bit of selective digging and call up some points I think are worth highlighting.

For each level, there's a chart listing all other levels this level can access: a good choice.

Many levels have a graffiti table.  I like this: it essentially serves as supplementary rumour table, albeit a cryptic one.  I suspect in a lot of cases it's going to function akin to prophecy: players having something happen, checking their notes, and going "oh, that's what it was referring to".  But I still think they're fun.

Encounter Writeups

Room Titles are reasonably good.  All short, they make an effort at being descriptive.  Even something like Room 3-191 Empty Cave?, using a question mark to make clear that there's more going on than first appears.  Storage Chamber.  Misty Cave.  Black Light Zombies.  You get an idea of what's going on.

I'd say the general style is a Greg Gillespie-style classic vanilla: it tries to be thorough and creative within the scope of what we would call traditional old-school D&D: there's nothing Raggiesque here.  I have no issue with this, being a big fan of classic D&D: a desire to capture this spirit is what made me return to this via the OSR in the first place.  I'd also argue that there's room for creativity within the bounds of vanilla.  Room 8-76 has a room with warped flesheaters that are hanging around eternally feasting on the flank of a god who is partially projecting into this plane.  Twisted flesheaters endlessly carving off godsteaks is a great encounter.  In a module full of this, you'd wind up with gonzo, but it still clearly has a place in vanillaland.  Encounters like these aren't the norm, but it does go to show that there's more than orcs and goblins and whatnot within.

Encounter write-ups specifically swing between for the most part between one column and three lines.

The description style for an encounter is comprehensive by topic. That is, it breaks down key features paragraph by paragraph, dealing with them in their totality before moving to the next.  The advantage to this is that everything is together.  The downside is that you really don't get a quickie overview of a room, and the longer the room is, the more you have to read to provide the sort of PC-eye description you'd give to them when they first enter.

So here on p. 164, we have "Ancient Tombs and Halfling Camp".  We have walls, 3 sarcophagi, 3 candelebras near them.  So far, so good.  Then we have a northeast opening, and a parapet made of rubble across it, and some historical detail on the passage and dwarven stonework info.  Then, detail on a poison manufactory against the south wall, which is then like the parapet broken down to give you all the detail you might want for it.

Because most but not all of this gets its own paragraph, it's at least reasonably well ordered.  But it means a decent amount of reading for each room before you know you've told the party all the most relevant visual details.  It's the sort of writing style that calls for a highlighter, unfortunately.  Now, I want to emphasize that this isn't verbose.  There's a little pointless historical detail (e.g., for here in the stuff about the parapet), but not much.  It's more a matter of organization.  I prefer a summational room description style to let the DM be sure that they have everything visually distinct immediately at hand: "here's what immediately catches your eye when you walk in".  Such a style also facilitates the back and forth investigative dialogue between players and DM that's so the hallmark of old-school play.  Broadly, I think the text could use a bit more focus, especially considering how big this product is.  The longer the room entry, the more of a problem this is.

How I'd highlight the essentials

I do want to talk about some of the nice bits of room organization though.  We have a Tactical Note, so not everything is just charging you.  We have creature statblocks well separated out.  We have a separate treasure section, and even a GM Option section that suggests that maybe you want to put a bridge up here.

Again, not every room gets this sort of mammoth breakdown.  Flip the page and we have room 3-5A, which gets three lines.  The page after that and we have room 3-8 with 12 lines.  So it's not a wall of text for every room.

Overall, the description style is "reasonably short descriptive".  This is opposed to point-form terse (ultra-terse OSR style or early 1st ed), folksy conversational, or long-form descriptive (2nd ed or Wizards of the Coast style).  Here's another example:

"The upper register of the walls still bear evidence of the room’s original function as a Thothian audience hall: images of ibises, baboons, magical symbols, and cylindrically-hatted priests form a frieze along the upper register of the room."

I generally hate "used-to-bes", because 9 out of 10 times they're irrelevant.  Here, any player that's reached this point has probably clued in that Thoth is important to the area.  Basically, I think you could trim 5-10% of the module in the form of narrative links and historical "used-to-bes", though the result would be that some others would find the work overly sparse, I'm sure.  To me, this is an acceptable amount of such material: it doesn't make the module a slog or anything, and would only be noted by someone expecting either the much shorter or much longer forms of these entries.

Random Bits

Arden Vul doesn't provide us with a homebase area outside the dungeon, like Barrowmaze and Highfell does, for instance.  Instead, there's dungeon areas specifically geared to wider interactions, which I like.  Level 4, The Forum of Set, is a giant market and meeting area where the players can unload stuff without slogging back to civilization, buy new stuff, get info, and meet and greet the factions.  It's a great idea, and believable in a former city and a setting of this size.  There's some good smaller-scale personalities to interact with here in the form of merc parties and interesting vendors as well, with goods available beyond the usual weapons, armour, and 50 feet of rope.  These people have nice, workable personality notes to help run them, for example, "Sarcastic, impatient, sharp ears", or "Unctuous, obsequious, curious."  Slaves are regularly bought and sold here, though it doesn't descend into Gorean edgelord territory.

Area 4: The Forum of Set

In terms of treasure, even on the intro level there's an enormous haul, though it's in the delightfully assholish form of 220,000 coins (worth about 8,500 XP in all).  Then there's the main vault concealed by all this garbage, which has another 30K worth of stuff in a great mix of items ranging from gold statues to a gold-gilded bed to death masks to eggs.  It's not easy to find though, being behind two different secret doors.  An analysis of whether or not the adventure as a whole has enough bling would require close study and is beyond the scope of what I'm doing here.

As an aside, I'm not seeing any typos.  I do tend to notice these, being a writer myself, so while I'm not saying the thing is free of them, it's not egregious (I've found all of one).

Lastly, the size of this thing in PDF (which is how many people are going to come to it, as it's cheaper, and out first), is in *some* ways deceptive.  Just because the single work as a whole is 1120 pages doesn't mean you're *using* 1120 pages every second you're running this, anymore than, say, a guy with all the Forgotten Realm books needs to bring out every country guide to run an adventure in Waterdeep.  90% of the time you'll be referencing one of the volumes at a time, and none of the levels spill into other volumes and thus force you to use two at once.  In that light, on a session to session basis it wouldn't be much different than trying to run Barrowmaze or something of a similar length.  The dungeon is enormous, but it doesn't need to be shotgunned into your face as a whole at once.

Summing Up

So, is it worth it?  I certainly like what I see so far, but am well aware that it's the slightest skim over something this enormous, and I really hate glance-throughs masquerading as reviews, so I'm holding off still.

I think that even if you don't use this whole, you could easily steal mountains of it for your own games.  In terms of price, yes, it's expensive as all hell.  People in particular have complained about the cost of the PDF, but the idea that printing and warehousing are the only costs associated with creating a gamebook is a pernicious idea that needs to die.  You don't get three people labouring for multiple years on a multi-volume project without incurring significant costs in terms of layout time, art costs, and that little thing known as paying the writer.


staton67 said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to do this. When a product is this expensive I really like to read informative and thoughtful overviews of it.

Del said...

Just saw this, thank you for the kind words on the art. Glad you enjoyed.