Friday, January 8, 2016

How Tollenkar's Lair might have been improved.

First, apologies for the long hiatus. Life has been getting in the way recently. But I will try and get caught up - my original goal was to publish at least one post a month - and I should be able to make good on at least a couple more posts after this one. So stay tuned!

I have written a review of this adventure supplement for The Fantasy Trip game system here. In that review I pointed out a number of subtle, but in my mind significant, flaws in the adventure. In this post I will suggest how that release could have been made much better. The criticisms are divided between problems with the physical design of the product, and issues concerning the design of the adventure itself.

In terms of the physical product itself, my main observations were (1) lack of counters, (2) unrelated artwork, and (3) the use of the saddle-stitched booklet format. Obviously, adding adventure relevant counters would have been a huge plus to the release (as indeed they would have added much to the whole Fantasy Trip system in general, but I digress). This lack was the most significant flaw from a physical design perspective. The random artwork, while of good quality, was marred by being for the most part not relevant to the adventure. If I could have designed TL, the art would fit the narrative or figures in the adventure, and there would have been rather more of it. While not strictly essential, I feel nevertheless that good, relevant art enhances an adventure supplement considerably. Certainly I assert that this was the case with D&D related modules, for example. Finally, the saddle-stitched booklet was more prone to wear and damage, and even if counters had been present, such a format would not have allowed any means to store said counters. Hence, I would have suggested releasing this supplement in a large "MetaGame" format, as was done with Dragons of Underearth, allowing for more and larger pages vs. a MicroGame, and a box to store the counters in.

One other change I would make that I did not mention previously was to improve the maps by providing one level per page, or part of a page, to avoid the mess of trying to view all the levels on a single page. Sure, it was an innovative space saving idea, but in the end it's difficult to decipher the map, and terribly easy to miss important details.

Going beyond this, I would personally redraw the maps to expand the size of the levels, and add more encounters, to include some that even the supposed "owners" of this Labyrinth (Little Kess and Tollenkar) have no inkling of. Not just monsters and traps, but perhaps more mysterious "otherworldly" things and perhaps background on the ancient "Landmaster Hall" to bring to this adventure a sense of mystery and wonder that was pretty much sucked right out of it at its inception. This would have been a good way to introduce a bit more background and detail on Cidri and Elyntia and their past - a great pity Steve Jackson failed to rise up to the challenge here.

I would also "beef up" the mercenaries on Level 5 with more magic and the like. The whole "stingy with magic" nonsense really doesn't hold any water, as I explained in my first post on this. I realize that, when written, there was probably a concern about folks using basic Melee and Wizard only, and not having the rules for, say, fine weapons, but if that was the case an appendix in the back could have provided a brief excerpt of these rules to allow, say, Jamie Littlejohn to have fine plate and a fine battle axe, along with a couple of magical items. A drawing or drawings of these figures would also be a good thing, if only as a basis for counters.

Tackling the problems with the conceptual design of the adventure is a bit trickier. I honestly don't know which way to go with it - multiple forays just don't make sense in the module as written for the reasons I outlined in my original review, but that is really the only way to tackle Tollenkar and his peeps. One could simply take the suggestion made in the module and cut out Tollenkar and the lower levels, and leave Little Kess and his merry band as the adventure, but that too seems unsatisfactory.

A slightly better approach would be to try a significant rewrite that got rid of either Little Kess or Tollenkar, and left the rest of the dungeon as "untamed", with various random creatures - which would require considerable effort to populate on the GM's part. In this case, if one were after Little Kess and his bandits, one would find the lower levels shunned by that band, and haunted by all sorts of fell creatures. The reverse would be true with just Tollenkar; in this case, the lower levels would be inhabited but the upper levels would be largely unexplored and monster haunted. Tollenkar and his mercs would simply travel by the gate to and from the outside world, and leave the rest of the Labyrinth a mystery to be avoided.

The most straightforward solution might be to do a slight rewrite and simply state that Tollenkar ignores Little Kess and the upper levels for the most part, being involved with various other plots/research/tasks/hobbies/whatever and doesn't really keep tabs on activities up there. Conversely, Little Kess is unaware that his patron Tollenkar literally lives right underneath him. This would be my preferred approach to the problem, as it minimizes the work but provides at least a modicum of logic for multiple expeditions to Landmaster Hall.

What the above suggestions accomplish is that they avoid having to slug through all the encounters and perhaps allow multiple forays, while still avoiding the illogical situation I outlined in my review.

Fixing the above would really make this module standout, and a much more interesting release then it was historically.


  1. In Steve Jackson's defense, if memory serves, this was published at about the time the big blowup between him and Howard Thompson happened. My guess is that he would have done it a little differently if he'd still had any kind of input into the adventure. (Or, at least, that's the impression I get from things like "Caravan to Ein Aris" and "Orcslayer"...)

    You're sure right about one thing though -- Tollenkar's Lair always struck me as the bare-bones outline of a major adventure, that never got fully fleshed out into a real adventure. As such, it was always a big disappointment to me -- to the point where I never used it in my TFT games (though I did milk it for villains and NPCs from time to time).

  2. Certainly the physical components (or lack thereof) were the responsibility of Metagaming, so I do not blame Steve Jackson for that. But the bare bones nature of the adventure is on Steve, I'm afraid. Though had SJ not left Metagaming, perhaps a good deal more background may have been provided. I do wonder if some of what ended up in adventures you cited and GURPS Fantasy 1st Edition had originally been intended for Elyntia and Cidri. I should see if I can get in contact with SJ and ask him.

    1. I think that's the point I was trying to get to -- that the extra development that WOULD have made it a great adventure was truncated by whatever the deal was between SJ and HT.

      As far as your speculation on Elyntia and Cidri goes, I've often wondered the same thing. In fact, when I originally picked up Man-to-Man way back in the day, it seemed like it was merely a slightly re-written (and improved) version 2.0 of TFT. It was only later, when the other books started coming out that I felt like the shark had been really and truly jumped by GURPS. Of course, that's dinging Steve for not writing the game I wanted, instead of writing the game HE wanted, so it's definitely unfair of me. But, I still play TFT in preference to GURPS... ;-)