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Saturday 19 November 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: The Vertical Halls

This is a review of the DCC adventure "The Vertical Halls", published by Phlogiston Books, written by Gabriel Garcia-Soto.  I am, as always, publishing the printed edition; which is a small sized softcover, 40 pages long.  It has a glossy full-color front cover, featuring what looks like a trio of adventurers about to fall down what indeed appears to be a 'vertical hall', on a mountainside.  The interior of the book is black and white and features some black-and-white illustrations in that typical DCC style, as well as some fairly decent dungeon maps.

The Vertical Halls is described as a Level 2 adventure for DCC, which would mean that if converted to other OSR games I'd say it'd be closer to a level 4-5 adventure for most other D&D-based systems.  As it is an adventure product, I'm going to be using my usual caution of not going into as much detail about specifics as I would with a rulebook or setting/sourcebook, just to avoid potential spoilers for people wanting to play the adventure with all surprises intact.

Suffice it to say that the core of the book is a multi-level dungeon, albeit one with some interesting twists.  The main twist, essentially spoilered by the cover, is that one part of the dungeon is actually vertical, an impossible structure made possible by gravity-affecting magic.  The premise here is of course that "a wizard did it".

The adventure starts out in a small village nestled between several mountains.  The PCs have, for whatever reason (some possible reasons are provided) arrived in this village, and find that it is struck by a mysterious and very clearly magical plague.  Some basic investigation will reveal that the plague has clearly got some kind of connection with a ruined complex up one of the mountains.

Now, a couple of notes: first, I'm not a gigantic fan of setups where the PCs are essentially obliged to deal with the problem of the adventure, and this is that type of adventure, because the PCs themselves will get the plague and will need to go to the Vertical Halls to try to find the cure for themselves. It's even made clear that this is the type of disease that ordinary clerical healing won't be able to (completely) cure. This makes certain that in spite of the possible hooks of altruism to help the afflicted or the lure of treasure in the ruins, the PCs still have to go forward. I would think at least one of the other two reasons could be enough.

On the other hand, the disease in question is interesting enough that it somewhat mitigates for me the sense of distaste involved with it being a vehicle to coerce the PCs into going on the quest.  I don't think I give too much away by revealing that it's called the Tindalos Virus, and those of you who are fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will recognize where the name comes from.  While the adventure as a whole has weird and creepy elements, the author chose to make use of one of the parts of the Mythos that isn't just tentacle-porn, and instead is maybe one of the more interesting parts of Cthuliana still rich for tapping. So, some points earned there!

The dungeon itself contains three main levels. It is very well detailed, and that's lucky because it's also very intricately designed: first, there are many details of the dungeon where areas have important connections to other areas. Fortunately, the author has made good notes for the GM to keep track of what one room might have and how it connects to other rooms or areas.  Second, it has a fairly well-detailed 'ecosystem', with three different factions of potential opponents in the dungeon.  Each is interesting in its own way, and have connections to the other two (in terms of both conflicts and motivations). The creatures are fairly unusual and definitely not just generic.  I think that between that, and the magical architecture of the dungeon, it will make this adventure fairly memorable to anyone playing it.

It's also very deadly.  For starters, the number and variety of hostiles would, I think, be a serious challenge to a group of DCC PCs of the recommended level; this also means you could probably run it with a group of a couple of average levels higher than the recommended and it would still be a very decent challenge.  Second, I think that it could be very hard for a party to get to the main resolution they are obliged by the setup to seek out: the way to cure themselves of the disease.

At the same time, this is at least not a "negadungeon". There's plenty of rewards to be found for a party who enters the Vertical Halls, besides the prize of restored health. This includes lootable material valuables and also magical or other unusual rewards. And on the whole, there's none of the "gotcha" traps some of the OSR writers like to impose.  In some other products you tend to see cases where the designer punishes a party for acting the way a party ought to act in a dungeon; here, if your party is smart and behaves the way a party should act, it will give them the best chance of survival and success.

On the whole, I'd say that the Vertical Halls is a very decent addition to the library of DCC adventures.  You'll be very likely to enjoy it, if you like adventures with a decent dose of weirdness.  And in this case it's interesting weirdness that isn't mostly weird-for-weird's-sake. Though there is one instance of humanoid-monster inter-species romance that maybe goes beyond the thin boundary-line between interesting-weird to "that's just fucked up, dude".

Finally, if DCC isn't your game, there shouldn't be too much trouble for you to convert the material in the game to any other D&D/OSR game.


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